Developing Social Skills With Autistic Young People


Many people think that autistic children and adolescents aren’t interested in making friends or spending time with others. However, for a lot of young people in the autism community, this isn’t true. Autistic people often want to be close to others and seek companionship, but lack the social skills to make friendships a reality.

As a parent of an autistic child, it can be heartbreaking to see them struggle to make friends, face rejection, or experience loneliness. Consistent negative social interactions can also lead to social anxiety, making it even harder to connect with others. 

Autistic young people can learn social skills, but they often need to be taught. Unfortunately, social skills training still isn’t common in many settings, holding young people back from forming the friendships that they seek.

The good news is that, where social skills training is available, it is effective, and many autistic people go on to develop strong connections with others. This blog offers some information about what social skills training looks like and how it can support autistic young people to build lasting friendships.

Autism and Social Skills

Young people without autism usually develop social skills by observing and copying others around them. They tend to pick up these skills relatively quickly, learning how to take turns in conversation or to notice when someone is no longer interested.

Autistic people, on the other hand, often don’t pick up on social skills from exposure to others. Instead, they often need to be taught explicitly to understand how to behave. While teaching social skills at a younger age usually leads to better outcomes, autistic people can learn skills at any age, and effective training programs exist for pre-teens, teens, and adults.

Having difficulty navigating social situations is one of the central features of autism spectrum disorder. Young autistic people may struggle to:

  • start conversations
  • maintain eye contact
  • share enjoyment
  • enjoy other’s interests
  • understand non-verbal cues
  • take another person’s perspective

These difficulties can make it hard for an autistic person to join or partake in a conversation, even though they want and try to. Sadly, this social impairment may go on to harm a young person’s well-being in many ways, contributing to the development of anxiety, depression, and poorer academic outcomes.

Learning Social Skills

While social impairment can have a big impact on a young person’s life, it can often be avoided by social skills training. Simple interventions can support a young autistic person to learn how to navigate social situations successfully, laying the groundwork for lasting friendships and better mental health.

Some social skills that young people may learn include:

  • working out what others are feeling or thinking
  • understanding body language and facial expressions
  • sharing interests with others
  • understanding social norms
  • adjusting to new social settings
  • resolving disagreements and conflicts

Social skills are useful even for young people who are less interested in spending time with friends or usually prefer their own company. Teenagers and young adults use social skills when they go to the shop, use services, or encounter situations outside of the home. Social skills can go a long way to helping autistic young people be independent and successfully navigate daily life.

Social Skills Strategies for Young People

There are several different strategies to help pre-teens, teenagers and young adults develop their understanding of the social map. Parents, other family members, friends, and professional interventions can all support young people to learn social skills. It’s often helpful for young people to receive support from different kinds of people to help improve their confidence and breadth of understanding.

Some social skills strategies include:

  • role-play
  • self-management techniques
  • social skills groups
  • social media
  • social skills training
  • social stories
  • TV programs

Role Play

Role play involves rehearsing common social situations, like going to the shop, saying hello, expressing their needs, and asking someone to meet up with them at the weekend. Young people can practice role plays with family members and friends, as well as in professional settings. They may have their own ideas about which scenarios they would like the rehearse, based on their experiences and challenges in daily life.

Social Groups

Teenagers and young adults may want to join a social group for autistic people in their local area. Social groups are places where young autistic people can meet, share experiences, and make friends. They can offer safe and non-judgemental settings for young people to practice their social skills and develop their understanding of social situations.

Young people may also like to join a group that focuses on a hobby or interest of theirs. By entering a space where they have a common interest with everyone there, it can be easier to find conversation topics and share the enjoyment of others.

Social Skills Groups

In social skills groups, a group of young people work with a professional to develop and practice their skills. Social skills training can be led by special education teachers, occupational therapists, behavioural therapists, general teachers, and many other direct care staff. 

Effective social skills groups should involve:

  • breaking down social concepts into concrete actions
  • making language more simple and easier to understand
  • working in pairs and groups
  • developing self-awareness and improving self-esteem
  • different and varied ways of learning
  • opportunities to practice skills in real-life settings

Research has found that young autistic people attending social skills groups may develop better friendships and improved social competence. They may also experience less loneliness in their daily lives.

Social Media

Some autistic people find it easier to communicate through social media than in in-person situations. Social media platforms give young people more time to think about what they want to say and understand what the other person means. It also takes away the need to interpret non-verbal communication. Social media can help young people to consolidate and develop friendships they have made at school, in social groups, or in other settings.

Social Stories

Parents, teachers, friends, and others can use social stories to explain social rules and actions to autistic people. Stories can help autistic people to understand social behaviours and to see a situation from someone else’s perspective. For example, if a young person is struggling to understand how a person is feeling or acting, it can be useful to tell a story where they are in a similar situation, helping them to imagine the experience of the other person.

Social Skills and Social Anxiety

Many autistic people live with social anxiety, also known as social phobia. As many as 50% of the autistic community may be affected by the disorder, compared to only 7-13% of people who are not autistic. People with social anxiety may experience symptoms of anxiety in social situations, hold a fear of negative judgement by others, and avoid or escape from settings that make them feel anxious.

While research has found that autistic people who lack social skills, competence, and social motivation are more likely to experience social anxiety, interventions that improve young people’s social abilities may help to prevent the disorder and its symptoms. One study found that PEERS, a program that focuses on improving adolescent’s friendship quality and social skills, decreased levels of social anxiety while increasing the amount of get-togethers shared with other people.

Support For Parents

It’s normal for parents to be unsure about the best ways to support an autistic child. Some parents find it helpful to speak to other parents of autistic young people, through online or face-to-face support groups. Experts in autism can also offer invaluable advice and support.

The Wave Clinic – Specialist Support for Young People

Sadly, autistic young people are at a greater risk of developing mental health conditions than other children and adolescents. Around 7 in 10 autistic people may have challenges with their mental health. Autistic young people usually require support from specialists that understand how autism affects their emotions and behaviours, and how they respond to treatment.

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health programs for young people, supporting them to plan and build fulfilling futures. We believe in inclusivity and fairness, underpinned by expertise in autism and other types of neurodiversity. Our trauma-focused programs offer a whole-person approach that combines exceptional clinical care with education and a gap year experience.

If you are interested in The Wave’s programs, contact us today. We’re ready to answer any questions you may have and support you however we can.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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