Social Skills Activities for Children with Autism

One of the difficulties students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience in the classroom is with with social skills. 

These students may react out of the norm in different social situations, may lack conversation skills, and struggle with social norms. 

Some behaviors you may see in the classroom from your elementary students with autism:

1. Difficulty with Eye Contact: Student avoids making eye contact during interactions with peers or teachers.

2. Limited Social Initiation: Rarely initiates conversations or interactions with peers.

3. Difficulty Understanding Social Cues: Misinterprets facial expressions, gestures, or tone of voice.

4. Struggles with Turn-Taking: Interrupts conversations or activities without understanding the concept of turn-taking.

5. Limited Verbal Communication: Uses minimal language or relies heavily on scripted phrases or echolalia.

6. Difficulty with Non-Verbal Communication: Challenges in interpreting or using non-verbal cues like gestures, body language, or facial expressions.

7. Repetitive Behaviors or Interests: Engages in repetitive actions or talks excessively about specific topics of interest, which may isolate them from peers.

8. Difficulty with Flexible Thinking: Demonstrates rigidity or difficulty adapting to changes in routines or activities.

9. Social Isolation: Prefers solitary activities over group interactions, leading to social withdrawal.

10. Limited Empathy or Perspective-Taking: Struggles to understand or respond appropriately to others’ emotions or viewpoints.

11. Sensory Sensitivities: Displays reactions to sensory stimuli (e.g., noise, lights, textures) that may affect social engagement and participation.

12. Difficulty with Social Problem-Solving: Finds it challenging to resolve conflicts or navigate social situations independently.

13. Unusual Body Language or Posture: Displays atypical body movements or postures that may seem odd and impact social interactions.

14. Inappropriate Social Behaviors: Engages in behaviors that may be perceived as inappropriate in social contexts (e.g., invading personal space, lack of awareness of social norms).

15. Struggles with Transitions: Faces difficulties transitioning between activities or locations, which may lead to frustration or behavioral challenges.

16. Limited Joint Attention: Difficulty sharing attention with others during activities or conversations.

Of course you won’t necessarily see every one of these in the autistic children in your classroom. However, understanding these behaviors is key to supporting growth in these areas. Explicitly teaching social skills and addressing social deficits is such a powerful tool in your classroom. 

Skills like personal space, nonverbal communication, social rules, etc may be tricky things for students to work through with peers. Systematically teaching the underlying skills will make a big difference. It’s hard for us adults to understand our own emotions sometimes and it may be even more difficult for young students of any ability. 

Social skills training is a great way to increase a child’s social skills and build meaningful relationships with all students in our classroom, not just those with autism! 

Regardless of the social behaviors in your classroom, a great place to begin with teaching social skills is to utilize CASEL’s framework for social emotional learning. CASEL stands for Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and they are the gold standard of SEL. 

The enrichment of relational skills, development of social skills, problem solving, and deepening the understanding of social situations are all a part of the framework.

CASEL’s 5 Social Competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

Below you’ll find a breakdown of each competency and subsequent activity which will be an excellent way to integrate the skill into your classroom. 

Self-Awareness

We all know that it’s important to reflect on our actions. More than this though, it’s important to reflect on our motivations, values, and feelings as contributors to how others perceive us in social settings. 

We want our students to develop a strong sense of self. In order to achieve this, we need to explicitly teach them to reflect on themselves and their motivations. 

Self-awareness is foundational for effective social interactions. It helps individuals recognize how their emotions and actions impact themselves and others. Developing self-awareness enhances emotional regulation and empathy. It is truly a pre-requisite skill for positive social interaction. 

Activity

  • Create an “Emotion Check-In” chart with various emotions (happy, sad, angry, calm, excited, etc.) represented by pictures or words.
  • Each morning, or at the beginning of a specific block, have students with autism point to, or circle, the emotion(s) they are feeling.
  • Follow up with a brief discussion about why they feel that way and what strategies they can use if feeling overwhelmed (e.g., deep breathing, taking a drink).

This fun and easy bracelet for the end of the year, helps students communicate what they need through non-verbal communication. You can grab it for free by clicking on the picture below!

Self-Management

This concept covers regulating your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in everyday life. It involves setting and working toward personal and academic goals, demonstrating self-discipline, and managing stress effectively. Whew! That’s a lot, right? 

This core competency is a big one that requires a lot of time and attention. Self-management skills enable individuals to navigate social challenges and academic demands more effectively. They promote resilience and adaptability by teaching individuals how to cope with stress and setbacks.

Activity

  • Make a “Calming Jar” using a clear plastic bottle filled with water and glitter.
  • When students feel stressed or overwhelmed, invite them to shake the jar and watch the glitter swirl. 
  • Encourage them to take deep breaths and focus on the calming motion until the glitter settles.
  • Discuss how using the calming jar can help them manage their emotions and regain focus.

Check out this blog post with 3 helpful tips for helping students regulate their emotions!

Self management can be tricky to teach, and even mores for our Autistic learners. That is why I made task boxes to not only make the task easier for you, but also easier for your students! These task boxes teach students through hands on, visual supports!

So if you’re looking for a set of easy prep social skill activities that will explicitly teach self-management? 

Snag these 16 SEL task boxes specifically aligned to self-management competency.

I want them!

Social Awareness

Social awareness includes understanding and empathizing with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures. It means having the ability to recognize social cues, perspectives, and norms, as well as appreciating the feelings and needs of others.

Social awareness fosters empathy and compassion, promoting positive relationships and cooperation. Learning these skills helps students develop respect for differences and contribute positively to their classrooms and in their personal lives.

Activity

  • Have students play a game of “How Would You Feel?” 
  • Read picture books with students and ask them to identify how the character may feel as they go through different situations.
  • Ask student to then share how they would feel in a similar situation.

Want to add these types of skills into your social groups, center time, or 1 on 1 blocks? 

Teach essential social emotional skills to help students learn to read body language, conflict resolution, and understanding how different actions make others feel with this social awareness task box.

Relationship Skills

Relationship skills include the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with different individuals and groups. These skills require effective communication, active listening, cooperation, and conflict resolution. All things that can be tricky with students with special needs. 

Relationship skills are so important for forming and sustaining meaningful connections at any age. This may be the most important skill for ensuring all students feel welcome, connected, and supported. Positive relationships increase quality of life and ensure that students are included in a supportive environment in the classroom. 

They enhance collaboration, teamwork, and leadership skills, fostering a supportive and inclusive environment.

Activity

  • Practice giving genuine compliments
  • Prior to doing this activity, as a class brainstorm all the different ways people enjoy receiving compliments and what you can/should give compliments on (being kind, helpful, inviting, etc – not just “I like your shirt”)
  • Either 1 on 1 or as a class (maybe during your daily routines), ask students to say, write, or draw one compliment for a peer. 
  • As students become more and more comfortable with giving genuine compliments, you can switch this activity up and pull a couple of names a day to practice, or if you practice a star of the week (or something similar) you can include it then.

Activities like this and others all targeting relationship skills are included in this task box set; including being a good friend, showing respect, and saying sorry.

I want this set!

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making involves making positive choices about your behavior and social interactions based on personal standards, safety, and social norms. It includes considering the well-being of oneself and others. 

Responsible decision-making empowers students to navigate complex social situations and make thoughtful choices that contribute to their own and others’ well-being. Again, these are not easy skills! 

However, good decision-making cultivates problem-solving skills and ethical reasoning; all things students will need as they navigate increasingly difficult social situations.

Activity

  • Social stories are a great way to practice responsible decision making skills!
  • Chose an area you’d like your individual student to work on and create a social narrative around it.
  • This could be anything from playing, asking for a break, etc.
  • Practice making the right decision by reading through the narrative prior to the schedule block you normally see the student making poor choices. 

Snag these 5 FREE social narratives for common behaviors that include making responsible decisions!

Utilize these responsible decision making task boxes as easy centers, large group activities. role play, and in your small group setting.

Integrating CASEL Competencies for Social Skills Development in Autism

The low-prep activities above are designed to engage elementary students in developing essential social and emotional skills aligned with the CASEL competencies. These activities are great to include in your classroom for all students, but are especially beneficial for those with autism. 

They promote self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making in inclusive and supportive classroom settings. 

Feel free to modify these activities based on the unique student needs in your classroom. Like I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a one-size fits all when social skill building. These skills take time and repeated practice. 

That’s why engaging activities like the ones above and the task box bundles are wonderful to keep on-hand! 

You can pull these activities out when you see the needs of each of your students evolve over the year and reuse them for the next group!

You can grab ALL of the low-prep SEL CASEL-aligned task boxes in a bundle by clicking on the picture below!

By integrating these CASEL competencies into your social skills activities, you’ll support the holistic development of students with autism, promote emotional well-being, social engagement, and positive relationships. 

Each competency plays a crucial role in enhancing social and emotional learning which contributes to overall life success. Isn’t that what our main goal as teachers is? I think so!

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