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Prior to working in the public-school setting, I worked at a non-public school for kids with autism. The students I worked with were considered “high functioning.” Generally speaking, a “high functioning” student may have relatively “mild symptoms” of autism which – despite being mild – are significant enough to merit an autism spectrum diagnosis.
Several of the students I worked with struggled with social skills.
What are social skills?
Social skills are the skills that we need in order to interact and adapt in our cultural environment. Things like: taking turns during a game, not interrupting and/or monopolizing conversations, using a filter when communicating (e.g. don’t tell somebody that they’re fat). These behaviors are displayed more prominently when kids become teenagers and social conventions become much more complex.
Some of my students didn’t maintain eye contact for long enough. Others maintained eye contact too intensely. Some of them talked rapidly without realizing others weren’t interested. And, yet, others wouldn’t communicate unless spoken to. Every child was so different. Yet, the group of children I worked with had one thing in common.
They were “high functioning.”
This meant that they were well aware that they had autism. They knew that socializing was a challenging experience for them. They knew their natural instinct or response wasn’t the norm, but they followed their instincts anyway.
It did make for some fun Social Skills lessons.
For example, I once asked them, “Why is it not good to be a conversation hog?” Neal responded with, “Because people don’t eat bacon anymore. Everyone’s becoming a vegan.”
I also offered advice.”You know a group has accepted you into the conversation if they open up the circle for you.” Ian’s response was, “Actually, my group tends to hang out in a parallelogram so that statement doesn’t apply.”
They knew they were different. And they didn’t actually care. I loved them for that. When Connor talked about Star Trek for an hour without breathing, it made me smile – wishing that I cared about something with that much passion. When Brandon fixated on the grand piano in the gym instead of getting up for class, I felt envy. That he could completely immerse himself in the moment without noticing anything around him.
These kids are so special. So unique.
But the rest of the world isn’t as tolerant and patient as the lucky ones who get to work and/or live with these kids. It’s important that these children begin to develop social skills at an early age. By learning and applying the skills they learn, they are more likely to build relationships, live independently, secure a job, and get by successfully in our society.
Here are a list of activities to do with kids that are much more fun and engaging than a Social Skills curriculum.
Activities about Interpreting Emotions:
- Emotional Charades – Instead of acting out TV shows and movies, write out a variety of emotions on strips of paper. Each person will select one of the strips at random and act out the emotion. After the correct emotion has been guessed, a parent/older sibling/counselor can have a conversation about what kind of things lead to that specific emotion. (e.g. If acting out “sad,” it can be followed up with a short 1-2 minute conversation with the child about what types of events make people sad and what the emotion “sad” looks like).
Activities about Communication:
- Topic Game – This is a fun one that can be done in the car! Children with autism may have a tendency to fixate on a particular subject that they enjoy. Sometimes, it’s difficult for them to stay on topic when interacting with others. This game is a simple way to practice that skill. Choose a category (e.g. fruit or vegetable) and everyone has to go through the alphabet – one letter at a time – and choose a word that falls into the category. (e.g. A – apple. B – banana. C – celery).
- Read Aloud/Act Out Stories – Julia Cook’s books help teach children specific social skills through characters in each story. One of my favorite books of hers is My Mouth is a Volcano. This specific story is about a child who has the habit of interrupting others at inappropriate times. The read aloud could be coupled with conversations about interrupting and practicing the strategy of breathing out our “very important words” until it is our turn.
Activities about Self-Control:
- Red Light/Green Light – This is a childhood favorite. Though it requires a larger crowd, it requires no materials and helps kids regulate their behavior by practicing it with two key phrases: “Red Light” and “Green Light.” The group of kids are divided in half. Each group holds hands – both chains facing one another. On “caller”
- Simon Says – Another childhood favorite! It helps kids develop critical executive functioning skills – testing a child’s ability to pay attention, remember rules, and display self-control. These are all the “soft skills” that predict overall academic success.
Board Games Available on Amazon:
Race to the Top – This game has blue “YOU” cards – which help kids practice their manners, creative thinking & feelings, discussing family rules, etc. The green “Q” cards help them practice social skills, positive attitude, and managing emotions. It’s all built into an interactive game which is fun for the whole family to play!
Awkward Moment Card Games – A game for 3-8 players! It places people in awkward social situations. They can face ridiculous, embarrassing, or stressful events! Each person takes a turn as “The Decider” and that person chooses the winning reaction. (It’s kind of like a social skills version of Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples).
Teen Talk in a Jar – Discussion starters and icebreakers about every topic that teens want to talk about. It’s a great communication tool and works well in group settings. But just an FYI – there are several cards in here that I had to remove because they were about abortion and sexual abuse – which wasn’t appropriate for a school Social Skills lesson!
Hoot Owl Hoot – In this game, players help the owls fly back to their nest before the sun comes up. If you help all the owls get home, everyone wins! Two levels of play allow this game to grow with your child. Kids are practicing critical thinking, problem solving, following directions, and taking turns in a fun and engaging way!
Stone Stoup – In this game, kids are required to work together to “cook” a soup by making matches of ingredients. Match all the the ingredients before the fire under the kettle goes out and everyone wins! Kids are practicing their memory skills, social development, helping others, and cooperation,
Social Skills Activities
Questions of the Day:
- What games or activities would you add to this list?