Practicing Important Social Skills During Social Distancing

Staying safe at home means your child with autism could lose vital social skills. An expert at Gateway Pediatric Therapy shares tips for stemming the loss.

To avoid contracting coronavirus, expert advice is clear. Frequent handwashing, correct use of a face mask and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others are effective methods of staying safe. While we’re all isolating to some degree, a lack of social interaction can diminish the social skills of a child with autism, says Erika Eckert, Supervising Board Certified Behavior Analyst at Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Sterling Heights.

“We work to build up and practice social skills that kids can use within their communities, and social distancing means kids with autism have fewer opportunities to practice these skills,” Eckert explains. Here, Eckert shares some suggestions for practicing social skills while continuing to stay safe.

Broaden communication at home

Work with your early learner to routinely respond to their name and greetings at home. If the child is nonverbal, encourage them to wave or simply orient their body toward the person greeting them. “Work with your child to respond to phrases like ‘come here’ and ‘where are you?’ because if they haven’t heard ‘come here’ in six months, they aren’t as likely to respond,” Eckert says.

Engage learners with emerging language by using sing-song fill-ins. You might begin with ‘twinkle, twinkle little’ and have your child fill in ‘star.’ These are songs they would routinely hear at school or daycare, but may not be as likely to hear at home, Eckert explains.

Labeling emotions is good practice for advanced learners. “Here you can talk through emotions as you feel them and even encourage your child to identify emotions in others,” says Eckert. “Kids with autism struggle to label emotions, so if you notice your child is feeling frustrated, have them say ‘I feel angry.’ You can model this by narrating your own emotions, and if someone is upset on TV, you can label that, too.”

Learners of every age should be able to answer personal questions, including their name, address and their parents’ phone numbers. “It’s so important for all kids to have that safety skill,” Eckert says.

Tools for practice

At home, work with your early learner using joint-attention games, which involve engaging with the same item and sharing. “You might build a tower with blocks and your child knocks it down. Cause-and-effect play uses joint-attention skills, which open the door for all other social skills,” Eckert says.

For moderate to advanced learners, set aside time for cooperative play, like board games. “We learn so much through board games, like turn-taking, good sportsmanship and tolerating losing,” she says.

Children with autism can benefit from engaging with social stories, which talk about what a community setting is, what it looks like, who will be there and expectations for how to act. “You can access social stories online for the dentist, the barbershop or the grocery store, all of which can be overwhelming for young kids, but especially those on the autism spectrum,” Eckert says. “Pick one place each week and watch a video about it. Some kids haven’t been to the grocery store in six months, and what seems second nature to an adult can be stressful and overstimulating to a child who has worked so hard to be in that setting.”

Practicing social skills consistently and in ways that are appropriate for a child will help ease that transition back to more normal social times, Eckert says. “When it comes down to it, one day quarantine and the pandemic will end and we will have to go back to social situations, so it’s important to be prepared.”

Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at seven locations in southeast Michigan. For more information, call 248-221-2573, send an email to or visit

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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