Excerpted from Social Skills for Students with Autism.
Just like socially competent students, children and youth with autism differ in a number of ways. Similarly, schools and classrooms have unique characteristics, attitudes, and norms. Accordingly, programs for facilitating social interactions between socially competent students and pupils with autism must accordingly vary with circumstances, situations, and needs.
Educators must consider many options to stimulate interactions between these groups. For instance, peer tutoring may be more appropriate in some settings and with certain students than others. Similarly, some students will be more responsive to antecedent prompting than others. Selecting social interaction procedures based on individual subject, setting, and other salient variables increases the likelihood of successful outcomes.
Social interaction programs are designed to enhance relationships between children and youth with autism and their socially competent classmates. Increased social interaction enhances acceptance of persons with disabilities, facilitates their social skill development, and promotes positive community attitudes toward disabilities. It is unrealistic, however, to think that social interaction programs will lead to intimate friendships between regular class students and their peers with autism.
Such relationships are based on mutual interests, compatibility, and other factors rarely present in associations between students with autism and their socially competent peers. This reality is not intended to take away from the significance of interactions between students with and without disabilities, the importance of general education students' being accepting and responsive to their peers with autism, or the necessity for children and youth with autism to make appropriate initiations and responses with others. Rather, it is intended to be a reminder that social interaction goals must be commensurate with the relationships that may ensue.
Educators must establish social interaction programs, contingencies, expectations, and procedures that coincide with individual setting characteristics. That is, instructional methods are most effective when they allow students to interact in regularly occurring activities in accordance with established local norms. For instance, teaching a student with autism to talk to his or her socially competent peers during activities when students ordinarily do not talk may be counterproductive to the goal of encouraging social interactions.
Researchers have documented clearly the necessity of attending to the quality of social initiations and responses as well as quantity. Teachers and others who organize social interaction programs must recognize that the frequency or duration with which a child with autism interacts with socially competent peers may not be nearly as important as the level at which the interaction occurs. That is, a rehearsed, stilted conversational response of 15 words may not be as meaningful as a 5-word spontaneously generated statement. Accordingly, instructional methods and evaluation techniques must focus on both qualitative and quantitative aspects of social interactions.
Unfortunate as it may be, not all children and adolescents are suited to social interaction programs. Regular class students who express reluctance or dislike for involvement with students with autism and students who have demonstrated poor role model qualities or who otherwise have interacted poorly with students with autism may be excluded. This is not to suggest that regular class students who have learning and behavior problems automatically should be excluded from social interaction program consideration.
A number of such students have shown themselves to be excellent peer confederates and tutors in spite of their own problems. Nonetheless, educators must closely evaluate each student for social interaction program participation and select only individuals who are suitable for interacting with children and youth with autism.
It is unrealistic to assume that general education children and youth will interact with students who routinely hit them, scream at them, or otherwise emit highly deviant behavior. Accordingly, educators and other professionals must bring the behavior of pupils with autism under control prior to initiating social interaction programs with regular class students. Individuals with autism need not be free of all self-stimulatory and other negative behaviors; however, basic compliance must be established prior to initiating social interaction programs.
General education students and pupils with autism interact most effectively when provided continual instruction and feedback. That is, social interaction instruction must not be viewed as a process wherein initial instruction and supervision are sufficient to achieve social interaction goals and objectives. Teachers and other professionals must provide ongoing instruction and supervision.
Some students with autism are unable to master an entire social interaction skill. The skill may therefore need to be task analyzed. To gear instruction effectively to individual students' needs, teachers and other instructors should define interaction skills along with their component parts. Once students have mastered the component parts, instruction on the entire skill may commence.
Introduction of skills into environments where they are most likely to occur and use of inherently interactive materials facilitates student learning and generalization. Accordingly, professionals should attempt to teach social skills in integrated classroom, home, and community settings, using play items and other materials that have natural interactive qualities.
Educators should question carefully whether or not an interaction skill will benefit a particular student with autism. Similarly, they should consider whether the skill will benefit others in the student's environment. That is, newly acquired skills should functionally enhance interactions between the student and others.
Students with autism may require many instructional and practice sessions to incorporate a new skill into their repertoire. Professionals should first address social interaction skills having the greatest potential impact. In particular, they should attempt to select social interaction skills that can be used with a variety of people and settings.
Teachers and other instructors should tailor types and schedules of reinforcement to individual students' needs. Whenever possible, they should use social reinforcers. Thus, students who respond to social praise should not be introduced to tangible reinforcement. Additionally, educators should have plans and schedules for advancing students from one reinforcement type to another.
Students with autism have characteristics and behaviors about which teachers and general education students may not be knowledgeable. In order to facilitate interactions with autistic students, regular education staff and students should be provided opportunities to learn about autism. Promoting an understanding of autism and helping peers and teachers develop a positive attitude toward individuals with disabilities enhance social interaction programs.
Ideally, regular class students and teachers should know the characteristics of autism and have opportunities to become acquainted with children and youth with autism before formal social interaction programs are initiated.
Instructors must make a concerted effort to ensure that prompts do not interfere with or disrupt social interactions. Students with autism often become prompt dependent; that is, they only respond or initiate after receiving a cue from their teacher. Instructors should carefully monitor prompts to ensure that they facilitate rather than inhibit interactions and that they are applied as minimally as possible.
Professionals should collect and analyze data on social interactions of general education students with their peers with autism in both structured and unstructured settings. Data analysis assists instructors in deciding whether specific programs are effective and whether they require modification. Decisions relating to social interaction programs that are made independent of objective data are often faulty.
Students with autism may learn to use a social interaction skill in a specific setting or under a certain condition, but not understand that it has utility in other environments or circumstances. Therefore, it is important to plan for generalization of social interaction skills across individuals and settings. Without generalization instruction and practice, social interaction skills will typically be narrowly applied by children and youth with autism.
Social interaction programs are often structured to teach a particular skill to mastery. Subsequent to criterion achievement, instructors move to another skill. However, if previously acquired skills are not reviewed, students may forget and eventually require new instruction. To limit such occurrences, teachers should provide opportunities for students with autism to practice and maintain previously acquired skills.
Provided in partnership with The Council for Exceptional Children.
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