Teaching Social Skills to Students with Autism: What Role Does ABA Play?

Two students with autism having a conversationFor many individuals with autism spectrum disorder, communication and social interaction may present a challenge.

If a teacher were to approach a typically developing student and say, “Hey, Sally! How was your weekend?” – Sally may make eye contact with this teacher and say, “Great! How was yours?”

For many students with autism, this interaction looks different. If the same teacher said the same phrase to a student with autism, “Hey Sally! How is your day going?,” the particular student may look toward the ground, or cover their ears, or reply back in a repetitive sequence.

Social skills can be learned, however. Prosocial behaviors can be taught by a variety of professionals using a multitude of techniques, including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), to students with autism.

Who can teach social skills?

Students with autism who receive specially designed instruction (SDI) and related services are required to have an IEP. With an IEP comes an IEP team composed of many different individuals who work together to help the student meet IEP goals. In a number of cases, goals pertaining to social skills will be defined in an IEP for a student with autism. Social skills goals, like understanding body language or finding a compromise, may be written into the social/emotional section of the IEP.

So, who plays a role in teaching social skills? It depends!

Special education teachers are specifically trained to teach students with disabilities, including those with autism, and they may use specific resources and teaching strategies, like those found in ABA, to help students with autism learn social skills. We’ll circle back on this in more detail in just a bit!

Related-service providers may also play a role in teaching social skills to students with autism. For example:

  • Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) can assess and treat communication disorders, including social communication difficulties.
  • Occupational Therapists (OTs) can work with students with autism to improve their fine motor skills and sensory processing, which can impact social skills.
  • Psychologists or guidance counselors can help develop social skills and manage emotions among students with autism.
  • Parents/Guardians are key pieces of a child’s education across the board and can reinforce skills taught in school to further enhance social interaction.

Now that we know WHO can participate in the instructional process of teaching social skills, where does Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) come into play?

The role of ABA in teaching social skills to students with autism

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is a practice-based science and instructional methodology in which the principles of learning and behavior are used to teach socially significant skills. These skills are taught in accessible, achievable steps so that learners can master multi step tasks one step at a time.

Commonly used among students with autism, the principles of ABA-structured techniques can be implemented among students of any age to help develop social skills.

  • Discrete trial training: Special educators and related service providers can break down social skills into smaller, bite-size steps. For example, if you were working to teach a student about initiating a conversation, you would break it down into smaller steps and teach each individual step one piece at a time.
  • Reinforcing positive behaviors: Positive reinforcement can be used to reinforce positive social behaviors, such as initiating conversations, and sharing. Offering praise and rewards can be powerful tools for encouraging positive social behaviors, such as making eye contact or jump starting a conversation.
  • Visual supports: Comic strips, social stories, visual schedules and more can help students with autism recognize and understand their surroundings and how to better communicate/interact.
  • Role-playing: Demonstrating different social scenarios and interaction is a commonly used ABA-technique, allowing students to take a ‘watch and learn’ approach. For example, you can model how to take turns or share with a peer.
  • Generalization and maintenance: Educators can work on generalizing and maintaining skills to ensure mastery of certain social skills in different environments and settings. For example, can your student with autism take turns appropriately in school with peers, as well as at home with a sibling?
  • Data collection and analysis: In ABA, educators will collect and analyze data on the social skills they are teaching to inform future instruction. Useful data helps educators see clearly when students are making progress and when they need to adjust course.

Depending on the unique learning needs of each student, the techniques used to teach social skills will likely need to be individualized. For example, younger students may benefit from comic strips and other visual supports, while adolescents may respond better to role-playing scenarios.

From early childhood through to the transition to adulthood and beyond, Applied Behavior Analysis techniques can help students with autism learn social skills that will lead to the development of purposeful relationships, strengthened independence, and a boosted sense of well-being.

Contributor Bio

Megan GilsonMegan Gilson is the Senior Manager of Content Marketing at TeachTown, the leading provider of K-12 adapted core curriculum. A skilled content creator, Megan has spent the last decade of her career raising awareness about the benefits of health, wellness and equitable and inclusive education. She received her bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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