With vaccines widely available and pandemic mandates lifting, we’re all coming out of social isolation with a new understanding of what it means to lose social skills. For kids on the autism spectrum, these losses can be more detrimental, says Board Certified Behavior Analyst Eman Hamdan, Clinical Director at Bright Behavior Therapy. Hamdan and her colleague, Clinical Manager Sonia Salman, BCBA, help children, teens and young adults with autism through ABA therapy at Bright Behavior Therapy in Dearborn.
“During this pandemic, children with autism have lost the ability to comfortably start conversations with children their age and with older peers,” Hamdan says. “They’ve lost social skills related to playing outdoor activities with other children and some have forgotten how to ride their bikes.”
Even older kids who have learned activities of daily living such as the routines of shopping, paying for purchases with money and receiving the right change have experienced a decline in their skills, Hamdan says.
Potential long-term effects
While these skills can be regained through work in an ABA therapy environment, parents should pay careful attention to what skills their children may have lost during this long spell of isolation and work with their ABA therapist to supplement these efforts at home. “Losing these skills can hurt a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the long term, especially when going back to school and making new friends or when going to college and finding a job,” Hamdan says.
Some kids with autism who have spent long months with limited social interaction and increased screen time have effectively retreated to the comfort of electronics, says Hamdan. “This can decrease relationship-building skills for these kids. Some children start engaging in stimming behaviors like hand flapping when watching TV or on electronics. If they are constantly on electronics and not getting any social skills, it could increase their stimming behaviors,” she says.
Parents who are familiar with the task of redirecting their child away from electronic devices and toward social interactions understand how difficult this is. “This can cause more aggression by the child toward the parents and others,” Hamdan explains.
What to work on at home
A concentrated effort toward rebuilding social skills at home will pay off in other situations, so it’s worth encouraging increased social interaction, particularly to practice those skills you’ve noticed are gone. Games are a great way to get the whole family back into a social mood, Hamdan says.
“Parents can play board games with their children, and if they have siblings, they can play games like Guess Who? or charades,” Hamdan suggests. “Or the whole family can go to the park where there are other children. Prompt your child to approach other kids and ask to play with them.”
And, as we are once again going out to restaurants and stores, use this opportunity to help your child regain lost skills — or learn new ones. “When going out to eat, have your child order their own food if they are able to. Also, when going shopping, teach your child how to pay,” says Hamdan.
Model desired behaviors
If your child resists your efforts to build their social skills, show them how it’s done, then encourage them to try it too, suggests Hamdan.
“Parents can model how to play a game and prompt the child throughout to teach them what to do and how to play,” she says. By practicing taking turns and sharing encouragement, kids can learn how to cooperate. “Parents can model a task and then have their child do it right after. Be prepared to prompt your child, as needed.”
ABA therapy can help
When helping a child with autism regain social skills that were lost due to lack of use during the pandemic’s extended isolation, parents are likely to find the best success if they work in tandem with their child’s ABA therapist.
Because it is highly individualized, “ABA therapy will target the skill that needs to be learned or relearned by working one-on-one with the child until they regain that skill,” Hamdan says.
By practicing skills in the therapy center and at home, a child with autism will learn that they can apply social skills in a variety of environments.
“Our goal is to work with the child until they regain that skill, not just in an ABA setting, but also in different settings,” Hamdan says. “If a child decreases in some areas, their ABA therapist will go back to that specific task and reteach it.”
Learn more about Bright Behavior Therapy at mybrighttherapy.com.