Social Development and Life Skills: For a Child On the Spectrum

Teaching social development for the parent of an autistic child can be quite a stressful and daunting task.  Add in teaching life skills and you have a recipe for burnout.  Although these concerns may feel like you are trying to climb an uphill battle, don’t be discouraged. A focused, patient, and consistent approach is key.  In this article, we will share helpful tips and advice from some local professionals who work in the field of autism intervention.

Let’s discuss social development.  Your child may appear to be more withdrawn, try to isolate, or have a difficult time grasping communication concepts such as listening and following directions.  Intense one-on-one interaction is best until your child appears more comfortable in gradually increasing groups.  Throughout this article, several techniques are provided to help your child reach their full potential.  You will hear the phrase “descriptive language”.  Descriptive language refers to identifying objects as you see and use them (let’s put the pillow on the bed, the cup goes beside the plate, etc.).  Here are some tips to keep in mind when working with your autistic child:

1. Wait, observe and listen.  It is important to observe your child’s body language and listen to what he or she is saying through his nonverbal cues.  By doing this, you will not miss attempts to initiate, such as pointing, eye gazing, gestures and grunts, which all have meaning.  Do not anticipate all needs; wait to be asked for things and try as much as possible to make sure you are down on his physical level.  Being face-to-face allows you the opportunity to receive communication cues from your child, no matter how small, and also allows him to study and learn your nonverbal cues with limited distractions.  Being down on his level and using exaggerated expressions helps you to be the most interesting thing in the room!

2. Reading together.  Reading with your child can be one of the best ways to bond, as well as helping him develop the skills necessary for learning language and listening skills.  Functional reading will help to set the foundation for independence later in life (cooking, shopping, scheduling daily activities…).  Some children on the spectrum have short attention spans, so you may want to select a short book or plan on reading in segments.  Find a quiet comfortable room where you and your child cannot be interrupted and make sure to point out objects as you read and discuss the characters and pictures.  You may find that he becomes intensely interested in one topic and wants to read everything he can on that particular subject!  No matter what type of child you have, keep the reading a fun time and it can be a special time for you both.

3. Encouraging communicative gestures.  Helping your child express thoughts, needs and emotions through gestures can be a wonderful tool (and can usually make for some fun games)!  One tip is to secure a favorite toy inside a clear and difficult-to-open container.  Hand the sealed container to him and encourage him to open.  If he is unable to do so, he will then hand it back to you and gesture for you to open.  This is a communicative gesture and is a foundational building block for later communication.  Another tip is to place things just out of reach so he has to ask, point or gesture. Eat a favorite food in front of your child without offering any to him and wait for him to communicate that he wants some.  Engage your child in constructing a block tower and then knock it down saying “uh oh!”  Do this several times and then knock it down without saying anything and wait to see what your child says or does!

All of these skills will help to encourage your child to interact with the world around him.  Be patient, be consistent, use descriptive language, and keep it positive (though sometimes that can be challenging). Never feel intimidated to seek outside help for yourself or for your child.

Another valuable skill to teach that fosters independence is life skills.  Life skills are everything from preparing a meal, hygiene and grooming, money management, organization and other skills you would use to help live productively in the world around you.  Establishing life skills is one of the foundations for confidence and greater independence.  Here we will share some information to incorporate into your everyday routines with your child.

1. Establishing routines.  Establishing a routine is beneficial for anybody at any age! Establishing a strong routine can help your child feel more in control of his environment as well as helping to establish the foundations for organization–an important life skill lesson as an adult.  Sometimes making a simple picture chart for certain situations (undressing for bath time, getting dressed, etc.) can be a helpful tool to help him understand “what comes next”.

2. Getting dressed.  Sometimes, simply getting your child dressed can be a task worthy of a sigh at least.  Making sure you continue to use your descriptive phrases (shirt on, pants up, etc.) will help teach and allow the child to do as much as possible.  Laying clothes out on the bed, for example, can be useful in helping your child identify in groups and learn how to follow three-step commands.  Lay the clothes on a surface, ask him to get one of the articles and help walk him through the “shirt on” process.  The same descriptive language used for getting dressed can be used for undressing (shirt off, pants down, socks off…).  Always try to encourage him to remove the clothes himself with as little help from you as possible; again, patience is key here.  This may take more time in the beginning, but can help advance independence as time goes on.

3. Making mealtime a teachable moment.  For mealtimes, try to stick to the same routine of everybody sitting at the table together for each meal as much as possible. This allows for a comfortable opportunity for social interaction and practice.  Have your child help you set the table by putting the napkins on the table or beside the plate.  Make sure that as you are serving his plate or when you set it down on the table that you identify the objects on it.  Enjoy this time with your child and family.  Mealtime can be a great opportunity to learn more about each other and for you to gain support as a caregiver.

4. Maintaining a bedtime routine.  This is a special time to read stories and spend some quality time learning more about him in a calm environment.  Try to stick to the same routine every night and keep bedtime as consistent as possible.  A well-rested child who knows what to expect and when to expect it, will have a greater opportunity to engage in the world around him!

With an estimated 50,000 children in Alabama living with autism, new resources are popping up all over the state to help support you and your child.  Become knowledgeable and take advantage of the services and support groups that are available to help support you as a caregiver and provide valuable opportunities for development in your child.


Varina Mead, a mother of two, Prattville native and current Director of Marketing for Easter Seals Central Alabama, has enjoyed working in the family service field for over 15 years.  Raised by a single mother with Cerebral Palsy, Varina learned from an early age that she wanted to work in disability advocacy and education. Easter Seals Central Alabama is a collection of programs designed to assist children and adults with disabilities, find greater independence, enhanced quality of life, and be seen for their abilities.

Guest Contributor