What are Social Skills?

Many people with disabilities experience difficulties with social skills.

People are social beings and as such certain social skills are necessary to navigate the world around us on a daily basis.  Many people with disabilities experience difficulties with this fundamental aspect of relating with others.

The term social skills is very broad and  refers  to the skills that we use everyday  to communicate and interact with each other, both verbally and non-verbally, through gestures, body language and personal appearances. Many social skills are learnt over time however, for those with some disabilities this process doesn’t occur naturally and therefore needs to be explicitly taught.

What difficulties may be experienced if there is a lack of social skills?

If someone has problems with social skills they may experience difficulties in a variety of ways including, but not limited to:

  • Personal space
  • Speech- vocal tone, articulation, volume etc. (e.g. speak in monotone and don’t accentuate particular parts of sentences when relevant which is likely to  increase misunderstandings)
  • Social interactions that involve sharing and/or taking turns
  • Social “rules” such as appropriate greetings and farewells  and general conversing
  • Listening to others
  • Joint attention
  • Appropriate eye contact
  • Recognising and responding to others feelings
  • Recognising jokes and sarcasm
  • Understanding unspoken  rules of conversations such as beginning and ending them

Teaching social skills

There are a number of strategies that have shown to be effective for teaching social skills to individuals with disabilities. It is important to not only teach the social skill itself but also the purpose and reasons behind it to generate understanding. The earlier the skills are taught the more likely it will be learnt and become routine.  Additionally, the intervention that is most suitable will be different depending on the age, gender and experiences of the individual.  Techniques include:

  • Applied Behaviour analysis (ABA) –particularly prompting and reinforcement techniques for the use of appropriate skills, imitation and modelling practices and self-monitoring.
  • Visual strategies – including social stories, scripts and visual activity schedules.
  • Peer training – use of peers to help teach social skills using a variety of methods such as, visual supports, role play and  video modelling.
  • Naturalistic  techniques – This is  often combined with parent training and focuses on providing structure to parent child interactions or to teach imitation and/or joint attention behaviour. This practice is consistent with the early childhood education curriculum in New Zealand.
  • Parent training –  parental and parent involvement is considered an essential element of intervention
  • Video modeling – social skills are learnt through watching a demonstration of a desired behaviour and imitating the behaviour. It could be themselves (video self- modelling), a peer or someone unknown
  • Social stories –  are used to model appropriate social interactions by describing a relevant situation including the social cues, other peoples perspectives and suggested appropriate responses
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – this helps the individual understand their thoughts and feelings and how these affect their behaviour.
  • Social skills groups
  • Priming –  reminding the individual of what’s expected as they
  • Structured teaching sessions

It is impossible to teach and plan for every possible social situation that an individual is likely to experience. Additionally, what works for one person may not work for another. The disability that an individual has may relate to particular social skills difficulties and direct the individualised treatment.  In general, the aim of most social skill interventions is to teach flexibility and aim for the individual to generalise the skills across people and environments. Practicing these skills in a variety of situations with a variety of people should assist mastery and confidence and ideally will lead to the individual using the skill(s) more independently. For more information please contact Parent to Parent and Altogether Autism.

rebecca armstrong
Rebecca Armstrong (MAppPsy)
Parent to Parent Researcher
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