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Early Childhood

What are social skills?

Social skills are the skills we use everyday to interact and communicate with others. They include verbal and nonverbal communication, such as speech, gesture, facial expression and body language. A person has strong social skills if they have the knowledge of how to behave in social situations and understand both written and implied rules when communicating with others. Children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified) and Asperger's have difficulties with social skills. It is important to understand that even Neurotypical children have difficulties with social interactions.

Why are social skills important?

Social skills are vital in enabling an individual to have and maintain positive interactions with others. Many of these skills are crucial in making and sustaining friendships. Social interactions do not always run smoothly and an individual needs to be able to implement appropriate strategies, such as conflict resolution when difficulties in interactions arise. It is also important for individuals to have ’empathy’ (i.e. being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and recognise their feelings) as it allows them to respond in an understanding and caring way to how others are feeling.

What are the building blocks necessary to develop social skills?

  • Attention and concentration: Sustained effort, doing activities without distraction and being able to hold that effort long enough to get the task done.
  • Receptive language: Comprehension of language and following directions.
  • Expressive language: Semantics (vocabulary), syntax (grammar), and use (pragmatics). The use of language to communicate wants, needs, thoughts and ideas.
  • Play skills: Voluntary engagement in self motivated activities that are normally associated with pleasure and enjoyment where the activities may be, but are not necessarily, goal oriented.
  • Pre-language skills: The ways in which we communicate without using words and include things such as gestures, facial expressions, imitation, joint attention and eye-contact.
  • Self regulation: The ability to obtain, maintain and change one’s emotion, behavior, attention and activity level appropriate for a task or situation in a socially acceptable manner.
  • Executive functioning: Higher order reasoning and thinking skills. The ability to organize, sequence, plan ahead, and execute tasks.

What can be done to improve social skills?

  • Play: Interact with your child to help develop joint attention, turn-taking, shared interests, cooperation and appropriate play with toys.
  • Emotions: Help the child to understand and display their own emotions and to recognise these emotions in other people.
  • Empathy: Help the child to understand and recognize how other people are feeling in particular situations.
  • Social stories: These are stories which are used to teach children specific social skills that they may find difficult to understand or are confusing. The goal of the story is to increase the child’s understanding by describing in detail a specific situation and suggesting an appropriate social response.
  • Social skill groups: Small group instruction focusing on perspective taking, impulse control, social anxiety, frustration tolerance, and emotional regulation.

Why should I seek therapy if I notice difficulties with social skills in my child?

Some children require explicit teaching about how to interact and communicate with others as these skills do not come naturally to them. Therapeutic intervention to help a child with social skills difficulties is important to:

  • Help a child to engage appropriately with others during play, conversation and in interactions.
  • Help a child to develop and maintain friendships at school and when accessing out of school activities (i.e., sports, attending a group such as Scouts).
  • Help a child to behave appropriately during interactions with familiar and unfamiliar people.
  • Help a child take turns, make eye contact, and show interest in others.

When children have difficulties with social skills, they often have difficulties with:

  • Initiating and maintaining new friendships.
  • Being flexible, negotiating, and compromising.
  • Understanding the intentions of others and reading social cues.
  • Understanding jokes, sarcasm, and figurative language.
  • Coping with failure, bullying, and rejection.
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