When we think of autism and social skills we may think of deficits. We may not know that those ideas are now very outdated. No one needs these outdated ideas where Autistic people need to be taught and trained how to behave in social situations. These sort of antiquated ideas only harm the Autistic sense of self. They also harm otherwise beautiful relationships between Autistic and non-autistic people. In this article I will show you 7 simple ways that you can enhance social skills or social communication.
Here are the 7 topics I will cover to enhance social skills :
- Time with other Autistics
- Access to AAC, ISL etc
- Communication is a two way task
- Topics Tables
- Presume Competence
- A non-hostile sensory environment
- Time with other Autistics
This has got to be the most important support that you can give your child. If you are an Autistic adult then sharing space with other Autistics is beyond important. Why is time with other Autistic people so good for our us? From Autistic person to Autistic person we communicate with more ease than we do with non-autistics. We all need to see ourselves in others and spending time with other Autistic kids or adults means that we are mirrored by others. We can see that we are accepted as we are and we can build a good self image. We can feel accepted. We have many shared experiences and similar ways of thinking.
Unfortunately I know that some professionals instruct parents not to allow their children near other Autistic kids. I have had many a parent tell me that they have been advised this and especially not to allow their child spend time with children who are “lower Functioning”. (Please see article on the problem with functioning labels). The idea is that they will lose any social skills they have learnt by spending time with Autistic kids. This sort of “advice” from the dark ages actually shows how little these professionals know about Autistic people. We belong to our own culture. We deserve to spend time within our culture and we have every right to see ourselves in other people.
Spending time with other Autistics means that :
- we can be ourselves more.
- We do not need to mask.
- We can communicate freely without fear of rejection.
- We can develop social skills.
- We can build relationships and confidence which will also stand to us when we meet people who are not Autistic.
2. Access to AAC (Augmentative and alternative communication) and Sign Language
Adults who do not speak or who do not communicate through speech full time will advise us to give children access to AAC or sign as early as possible. Access to AAC aids communication. Many Autistics who use speech as our primary method of communicating will also use AAC. endever* corbin does a wonderful job of explaining all of this to us and takes us through the many options of AAC available. They do this in our recorded webinar on Autism and Communication
3. Communication is a two way task.
When professionals assessed the Autistic ability to interact socially they assessed this ability somewhat in isolation. They seem to have forgotten that communication is in fact a two way street. We must also assess how others interact with Autistic people. How do other people interact with us? Well, if we ask Autistic people then we learn that actually non-autistic people have a lot of work to do when it comes to interacting effectively and respectfully with us.
Because there is duality of communication then we need to learn how to meet each other half way. The first step in doing this is respecting Autistic Language and Culture. In this first step you let go of all the antiquated ridiculous ideas that the medical model created about Autistic people with very little foundation. Once you have accepted that Autistic people can communicate effectively then you can start by learning our language. Learn about stimming. Learn how we use language differently and then you can adapt the way you communicate with the Autistic people in your life. We can meet each other half way but this begins with understanding and acceptance.
More ways to enhance social skills…
4. Topics Tables
Topics Tables are something I came across at Autscape, an Autistic Conference in UK a few years back. At the mealtimes there were some tables allocated in the restaurant for this idea. Each of these tables had a topic written on them eg cats, computer games, politics. If you wanted to chat to others you could sit at one of these tables. Having a predetermined topic meant that delegates didn’t need to be anxious about engaging with others.
I think this idea could be used in lots of settings. It could be used in workplaces, schools and social events. It would be really helpful for anyone who is anxious about engaging socially and not just Autistic people.
Likewise clubs can be great places for us to mix with others. If we sign up to a camera class or drama club then we will meet people who automatically share our interests. When we have something in common with others then it is easier to feel at ease and to communicate.
The next of our 7 ways to enhance social skills is Acceptance. I’ve mentioned Acceptance a few times already but it also deserves to be discussed on its own. Acceptance really is the key to better communication but also to better relationships. Often people will focus on the things the Autistic person in their life does not do rather than appreciating all the wonderful things that person brings to their life. Acceptance means that you fully accept the person as they are. It means that you do not wish they were different in any way. It means that you see them as an equal.
Sometimes when I talk about Acceptance some people think that I’m asking them to accept “unacceptable behaviours” . I’m not. Part of Acceptance is realising what being Autistic is and what it is not. Behaviour which is a response to trauma is not autism. It is also not what we want people to accept. We want you to accept that this is human behaviour and that rates of PTSD (post traumatic stress) are disproportionately high in the Autistic community than in the general public. We need you to accept that these rates are unacceptable!
Accepting that Autistic people are full whole humans with our own language and culture will be the start of a wonderful relationship between you and Autistic people.
6. Presume Competence Presuming competence is a phrase which is promoted widely in the Autistic Community. Often, when a child has a diagnosis others will interact differently with them. They will speak differently with them than they do with other children. I am always saddened when I explain a way to communicate only to be told that “they (the Autistic child) would not grasp that”.
I’m hearing this a lot lately as regards to Covid-19. There is a presumption that Autistic kids, teens and some adults also would not understand the concept of Covid. This is not presuming competence. This is presuming incompetence. This is making an assumption based on an external idea of what is going on inside the mind of an Autistic child or adult.
Some people are still under the illusion that a non-speaking person is non-thinking. Speaking is a motor skill, it has nothing to do with intelligence. Presuming competence will enhance communication because it stops people from talking down to Autistics. It also stops others from infantilizing the Autistic person. How often have you heard that the non-speaking Autistic adult ” has the mind of a five year old”. This is infantilizing an adult. This is the opposite to presuming competence. How would you communicate with a person you presumed had the competence of any other 32 year old rather than having the mind of a child? There would be a big difference wouldn’t there?
No adult has the mind of a child. If you’ve reached adulthood then you’ve had decades of experiences, thoughts, wishes, dreams and learnings. To say any adult has the mind of child is not only inaccurate but incredibly ableist.
7. A non-hostile sensory environment
The last of our 7 ways to enhance social skills is by creating a non-hostile environment. A non-hostile environment is one that is conducive to comfortable communication. Our environment impacts how effective we communicate. How effectively would you communicate on a phone call if you stood on a street with lots of traffic and jack hammers going off within a few feet of you? Lots of things in our “sensory” environment can be distracting. It can be difficult for me to have a conversation in a noisy bar or cafe. It can be difficult for me to have a conversation if there’s something more interesting grabbing my attention!
Other people are a big part of our environment. How they interact with us and treat us has a big impact on our ability to communicate effectively. If we feel comfortable with you then we can communicate well. If we feel confident then that enhances our communication.
If you listen to us, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal communication, if you listen to us then we feel heard. We feel seen.
If you see us as equal then we feel more comfortable. If you adapt your way of communicating in a respectful way which reflects your true understanding of how Autistic communication works, then we can communicate better. Communicating is a two way thing. We need to meet each other half way. The responsibility for a two way task cannot be placed solely on one side. One-sided efforts don’t work for either side in reality.