Humans, by nature, are social creatures, and therefore social skills are important in leading a productive life in our culture. Preschool children need to learn the social skills of making eye contact, communication, awareness of others, turn taking, engagement, responding when spoken to, cooperative-sociodramatic skills and play skills (Dean, 2009).
Many social skills are derived and developed early on within the first few years of life. During a typical child’s first few years, they develop the ability to understand other people’s perspectives and an awareness that other people have minds that are able to think. This awareness is called Theory of Mind, and it leads to the development of self-conscious emotions, such as pride and embarrassment (Kalat & Shoita, pg. 260, 2003). Some children may have problems with social interactions such as social reciprocal smiling to parents and joint attention, which aids in building the reinforcement contingency needed to acquire and learn new social skills (Siegel, pg. 64, 2003).
Typical elementary school children build upon the aforementioned skills, but in addition learn empathy, communication, figurative language, response to social reward, social imitation, ability to work in groups, understanding non-verbal social cues, flexibility in social interactions, parallel and complex play skills, social language and behaviors, shared roles, control of emotional responses, pride in personal effort, and the ability to follow the rules (Dean, 2009).
Social skills are built over time and often require finesse. The social skills needed for functioning adults are numerous and include the ability to work in a group, take constructive criticism, understand and abide by ethical codes, listen, get along with other people, accept other people’s differences, and emotional intelligence, to name a few. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and infer emotions in others people, to show empathy and compassion towards others, and to use emotions effectively in reasoning and problem solving (Kalat & Shiota, p. 206, 2003). Even in ABA interventions, I do believe that emotional intelligence plays a crucial role in developing social skills. Many of these skills develop early in life and that is why early intervention should incorporate the teaching of social skills.
Many interventions have been shown to have reliable results in teaching social skills to children with autism. Play skills help to develop communication skills, imagination, memory skills, emotional regulation and social skills. (Siegel pg.119-120, 2003). Play skills can be taught by using role-plays, priming, video modeling, peer modeling, peer mentoring and task analysis. However, one crucial element in all of these interventions is that we break down the social skills to be taught into smaller components, and use directive language (Dean, 2009). Also, self- monitoring is effective with older children to develop social skills. (Koegel, L. K., Koegel, R. L., Hurley, C., & Frea, W. D., 1992).
Any social skills intervention must target a specific skill, be explicitly taught, use direct instruction, have clear goals with social validity, and be socially beneficial to the child (Dean, 2009). In the community, there are multiple opportunities to take advantage of known social skills interventions such as incidental teaching and pivotal response training. One intervention that I have implemented with clients is a peer mentoring program, in which peers are selected, trained, and reinforced to give direct instruction to the client during free play activities. This has been successful in teaching children appropriate game playing skills and peer interactions. Although social skills are difficult to generalize, fostering positive social interaction with typical peers has been identified as an important factor in achieving socially valid outcomes (McGee, Almeida, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Feldman, 1992).