5 tips for increasing socialization and communication in children with autism
Need strategies for helping your child or student increase their social and communication skills? I reached out to Cynthia Johnson, who has 19 years of working in special education for the Oklahoma City School district. She has been selected to present her findings at a national SPED conference and has also been featured in a local newspaper and news station for her extraordinary work within her classroom. Below you will learn about five strategies that help children with autism increase their social and communication skills.
Autism impairs a student’s socialization and communication skills, for that reason, I use as many visuals in the classroom as possible. This may include a visual schedule for all, a visual schedule for the classroom and visual alerts to show a student where to start and stop an assignment.
Addressing socialization and communication is considered best practice to utilize in spite of where the child is on the autism spectrum. When students demonstrate difficulties with verbalizing or gesturing to illustrate what they want, you might see them act out with inappropriate behaviors. It took me a while to realize this inappropriate behavior was their way of communicating, however, I also realized quickly that I did not want the negative behaviors (which all too often is what you will see when their communications needs are not supported) to set precedent for meeting their needs. Therefore, I try to teach students how to communicate appropriately by using visuals, signs and words.
Strategy 1: I also use visuals to assist the students with knowing what is going to happen, where they need to be, whether in or out of the classroom, and what is expected of them while completing an in class work task and or while they are moving about the building.
Children with autism require a predictable environment, which is what visuals in the environment will provide. I will venture to say, creating a predictable environment is one of the key elements in helping students with autism at being organized and diminishing the anxieties of transitioning from one task to another.
Strategy 2: Too often, teachers (like me) talk more than is needed when speaking with students on the spectrum, and most often, some of these students will not process all the information.
Therefore, as a best practice, using visuals helps to extinguish the voice while providing a language many of these students can understand. A rule of thought: LESS IS MORE when it comes to speaking to a student even if the student is very verbal, talking too much can create anxiety and make things more difficult.
Cognitively students with autism have I.Q.’s that fall along the full spectrum, although you may see some in the above normal range in verbal ability, you might see others in the below average range of performance abilities, and with academic shortfalls.
Strategy 3: Cognitive gaps between students on the spectrum do not contradict my belief in why we should modify instructions, mainly because I want all students to see and experience academic and or social success, regardless of their cognitive level. Modifying the instructions is just one way to strengthen students on the spectrum cognitive skills and learning improves and becomes easier.
Typically the strengths and weakness displayed by children on the spectrum include struggles with predicting behaviors of others. Generally students on the spectrum do not understand facial expressions and often will misread the intended emotion of others, which can create awkwardness for all parties involved.
Social interactions is difficult and many suffer socially because of their inability to have what researchers refer to as “theory of mind,” which means students do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view (www.autismspeaks.org).
Strategy 4: One tool to help support the lack of socialization is a social story, which is a short social story presented in a positive tone.
The story is written to address inappropriate social responses, actions or interactions; however the story is presented in a way to show and share with students the expected behaviors. For example, if one of my students is hitting or showing some other negative behavior, I will create a story on the spot by saying out loud, “Jordan doesn’t like it when you hit her, it makes her sad (and I make a sad face, sometimes I will take the child to the emotions chart and show them the sad or mad face). I will continue adding to the story if I think the child doesn’t seem to understand. I also have individual social stories, to show what expected behavior (if a child is doing something not conducive to what is expected, I will show them a picture of them when they were doing the expected behavior and verbalize, “I like it when you were……., this strategy works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t, but it works more often than not, therefore I continue to utilize it).
Bonus strategy: If I had to offer any advice for teaching a child on the spectrum, it would be to engage, engage, and engage them in meaningful activities that include hands on and minds on activities. Also, keep the environment predictable.
Of course modifying the environment and the instructions is a non-negotiable that should be a prerequisite for any classroom where direct instructions are rendered to a child on the spectrum.
However, keeping them engage is important as it cuts down on the behaviors and requires the students to be active participants in the instructional activities and not just spectators doing their own things.
Strategy 5: Engage them in authentic activities that can be transferred from one content area to the next by integrating the lessons and making them stakeholders of their learning by giving them opportunities to show and share at their cognitive level and NOT the teachers cognitive levels (sometimes you will find teachers or assistants who will complete the students’ work to make it look perfect or because for whatever reason they deem it necessary-sorry I digressed…….now I am off my soap box)!
Most classroom environments are conducive to the style of the teacher and not always to the styles of the learner that inhibits it and the reason for that is we are so comfortable with things being “our way” and not thinking about the roadblocks that are created for our students. If possible, try to frontload the classroom with tools you know that will prevent the roadblocks, such as visual schedules, preferential seating, augmentative devices, social stories, physical boundaries etc.
Last but not least, the public schools have many resources, which include speech therapists, occupational therapists, sensory integration activities, and social interactions with typical peers.
For more information about strategies and techniques check out https://www.autismspeaks.org.
Cynthia Johnson is a mother of two who has a passion for helping others. She holds a graduate degree in education. She is an advocate for children with special needs and uses her time outside of work tutoring children to help with their academic success.