When your child with autism is young, you invest time and effort to help them gain the skills they’ll need for successful experiences in school and in the community. As your child grows, it’s tempting to ease off when they have mastered the basics and are doing well in their daily environment. But, where autism and social skills are concerned, the tween and teen years bring new challenges, says Jamie McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and President and Founder of Madison Heights-based Healing Haven.
Leading with acceptance and respect for each child’s individual skills and personality, McGillivary encourages parents to recognize the marathon effort of lifelong skill building for their child with autism. “Recognizing the need for social skills from an early age is the first step. You’re laying the foundation for the teen and young adult years and, by staying actively engaged, looking forward to the next step,” she explains.
As your child with autism ages, the complexities of their social interactions increase and what may have been cute at 7 isn’t as cute at 14, McGillivary says. “Children with sensory issues may not want to wear clothes and that may not be a big deal when they are little. As they get older, that is no longer the case. Social norms do change over time.” Neurotypical kids will adjust their social behaviors in response to the world around them, but kids with autism may miss important cues — and that’s where they need your help. “In these cases, you have to intentionally and mindfully work to support them in preparation to help them lead an independent life,” she says.
Growing into new social situations
At 7 or 8, it is not uncommon for all children to experience egocentric behaviors. Their interests in a social context may drive their interactions. Children with autism may struggle to understand or demonstrate social reciprocity — the quality of giving and taking — during social interactions.
“As children on the spectrum age, a basic reciprocity is necessary to be successful in most work environments and relationships. If you don’t show interest in others, it creates a gap in relationships. Perspective-taking is a really big skill, and it comes with learning to stand in someone else’s shoes,” McGillivary says.
For best outcomes, the seeds for these nuanced social skills need to be planted at an early age, but it’s really never too late to learn social skills. “It’s really the soft skills we are talking about,” she says. “An individual may have a tremendous skill set to do a job, but in most contexts, if your social skills are askew, that can really hold you back.”
Setting the stage for joint attention skills at a very early age is one way for children to learn how to engage with the world around them, and ABA therapy can help, McGillivary says. “It’s very important to learn to speak and gain other skills but engaging with the world around you is paramount at any level of the spectrum,” she says.
To expect your child to share the interests of others, you can show attention to their interests, share information about the skills you are using and encourage them to try, too. Lean into your ABA therapy team for help with this. “The more we can provide a therapeutic setting where we are accepting of a child and also engaging into their world, the more likely they will be accepting of us. It’s important to sit in their space, too,” says McGillivary.
Nothing is more valuable than openly accepting individuals as they are. But when struggles are significant and the rest of the world is slower to truly understand and embrace the needs of those with differing abilities, parents can balance acceptance with continued social skill development. With this perspective and plenty of support, a growing child with autism will be better able to readily share their gifts and attributes to the world.
Autism and social skills into young adulthood
Through ABA therapy, tweens and teens can build pivotal social skills that will open the door to other, more desirable opportunities. “That’s the hallmark of what we do,” McGillivary says, adding that not all ABA therapy providers are skilled at supporting the needs of older children and teens, and many don’t have programs for these kids at all. In so many ways, it makes sense to select a supportive therapy team that can provide services across the ages.
In order to help tweens and teens build important social skills, BCBAs can help parents determine which areas need support and they can customize therapy to help families overcome barriers.
“If getting out and spending time with others is hard for a growing child, it’s often easier for parents to accept this and allow them to stay at home. But if we can provide exposure in baby steps, we can get them out and about and help them learn to like it,” she explains. “It might not be a highly preferred activity at first, but it can turn into something beautiful and fun. When they can see that they can have access to rewarding= things they didn’t before, it can be really life changing.”
Even after the hard work of learning and practicing social skills and reciprocity, some kids may still not find connecting to be easy. “In those cases, their future job might look less like interacting with people. Seek out opportunities that will meet their strengths,” suggests McGillivary. “There’s always a need to interact, so they still need to learn some basics such as greeting another person or saying hello. Personal hygiene is another important area that contributes to social interactions. But if interacting with people isn’t their strength, push them toward what is.”
As a parent of a child with autism, your role is to set expectations to a reasonable level and then equip and encourage your child to achieve that level. “Right out of the gate, if we can set the bar to an attainable level, then push to the bar by gradually raising it, we’ll eventually say ‘Look how far we’ve come,’” she says.
“We can always have expectations for our kids if we know what they are great at. We can help them adjust the way they see things and adjust the environment so they can achieve great things with the right supports.”
Learn more about Healing Haven’s one-of-a-kind ABA services for kids ages 2-16 at thehealinghaven.net.