What we Miss in Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism


This summer my family took our annual drive east.  We traveled to New Jersey; Brooklyn, NY; and Connecticut.  On the way back, we opted to take a detour to the Baltimore Harbor.  We love using our museum membership and decided to visit the Science museum.  Because of my profession, I am always watching the nuances of social engagement in and between children when they interact.  My goal as an SLP-BCBA is to make sure that our therapy practices are truly filling in those gaps or holes rather than creating a child full of social rules and no relationships.

My son, Adam, loves all things inside this wonderful museum.  He happened upon a tall lever-pulley-ball contraption that required two -three people to operate it successfully. The child currently occupying the machine had employed his mother as the “lever puller” while he (the child) was turning the wheel.  When Adam approached (silently) and gained the eye contact of the child.  The child modeled the job of “wheel turner” and then gestured for Adam to come and take over this job.  They NEVER introduced themselves and said ‘Hi, my name is Adam”.  Instead, they looked- connected- and then continued on with the job of operating this very tall machine.   The child is now commanding his mother to pull the lever faster and for Adam to turn the wheel faster.  At this point a third child enters the group…Adam takes over a new job, the first child is now the “lever puller”, and the new child is now the “wheel turner”.    These children played and operated this floor to ceiling machine for 30 minutes (until the museum closed) and never had a conversation starter.  Their language was actionable “Turn”  “Hurry up”  “Get It”  “Oh Wow”  “Yay”  .  Their language was not complex…

These children

  1. Never introduced themselves to each other by name
  2. They never needed an adult to intervene to explain the concept of what was happening.
  3. They negotiated themselves.
  4. They didn’t use nouns.  They used verbs and social fillers.
  5. There was no “I want” ; “I need”;
  6. They didn’t care as much about eye contact vs. getting it done.
  7.  They admonished each other when the someone was slowing down the process.

When we teach social skills, yes there are elements that are intrusive, but are we hovering and being the social partner?  Are we not letting our kids fail enough and allowing or teaching the peers to encourage or even protest what is not working?

Are we too focused on the skill and the mechanics of how to play a game vs allowing children to create the “how”?

For example, the game of Uno has changed.  If we teach our kids to play Uno with beautiful rubrics and materials…what will they do when the game changes?  Are we teaching them how to be flexible, think, imagine, play, and have fun?

There is an entire world out there of social opportunities…are we robbing our clients of them by having them in groups with people who are “same in thinking and language”?  By no means do I suggest we nix all social groups….I am saying what is our ultimate goal in social teaching?

Our goal at Momentum Therapy is to make sure we teach social flexibility with knowledge of social skills along with conversation fluency.  While those children (we presume) all had the language to use, there were the other skills that became the priority.  We want our clients to participate well enough so that the task of operating the very large machine at the museum would have been accomplished regardless of language.  All those three boys needed was physical regulation, attunement, focused attention, flexibility-adaptibility, and the shared interest.

Talking was optional.

Landria Seals Green, MA., CCC-SLP, BCBA

President and Chief Clinical Officer, Momentum Therapy Services






2 Thoughts

  1. I could not agree more! No kid walks up to another on the playground and says “Do you want to be my friend?” Why do tx’s teach that????

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