July 27, 2020

5 Ways to Help A Child With Autism Learn Social Skills

How parents and families can make a big difference at home

autistic child learning social skills

Of course no parent likes to watch a child struggle in any scenario. For parents of high-functioning children with autism, that struggle often takes place in social situations — in a classroom, on a playground or during a simple conversation.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Thankfully there are many ways you can help your child learn social skills. The work often starts in a therapy session but it does not stop there. With the right understanding and practice you can play a major role in your child’s education. The first rule is to start with the basics — just as your child will.

“Children don’t learn social skills in a bubble,” says behavioral therapist Colleen Muhvic, MEd, NCSP, BCBA.

“What happens in a therapy session matters only if you help once that session is over,” she emphasizes.

1. Forget your own social assumptions

For most of us, certain behavior is second nature. Like greeting people when they walk into a room. Making eye contact when we speak. Noticing when a conversation is over.

But for people with high-functioning autism these behaviors are not automatic.


Acknowledging that fact and being patient as your child learns this behavior is a crucial step in moving forward with a relationship rooted in understanding.Taking the extra steps to acknowledge these differences and wrapping them into your own behavior towards your child can be very helpful.

2. Educate yourself as your child learns

This is a very important step you can take to help. It starts by reading up on your child’s condition, but you can take it even further.

Many social-skills courses include a component for parents, for example. If you have access to such a program you should take advantage of it. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to reinforce social skills when your kids are out in the world.

3. Remember it’s not about right and wrong behavior

The language you use with your children is important. They learn by example. Calling a behavior “wrong” tends to set off many children with high-functioning autism, who want only to be “right.”

Instead, talk about “expected” and “unexpected” behavior, which are two terms used in expert Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking® system. For example, if you’re trying to get your child to focus on a person when having a conversation rather than pacing around and looking elsewhere, explain that people expect attention when they are talking. In other words, give concrete examples of expected behavior that your child can observe and practice.


4. Help them practice

Social skills aren’t learned in isolation. What happens in a therapy session matters only if you are consistent in helping once that session is over.

For example, if a teacher or counselor establishes a reward system for expected behavior, carry on that reward system at home. Learning social skills is really a three-step process of observation, practice and self-monitoring. You can help most in steps two and three. Be there to support your children as they interact with others. And encourage them when they recognize an expected or unexpected behavior in themselves.

5. Know that it’s not a cure — but it is a start

There is no cure for autism. But helping your child understand social skills is a great starting point for a rewarding life. Keep in mind that, with progress, you should use rewards for good behavior less frequently over time. Work with a therapist on the best timetable for this tapering. The idea is that as a child gets better and better at a skill such as conversation, the behavior itself becomes more natural.

“When a child has a successful conversation or makes a new friend, the success is its own kind of reward for that child — and for the parent who gets to witness it.”

Related Articles

Baby receiving a shot in their leg by healthcare worker in pink
December 7, 2023
COVID-19 Vaccines for Kids: What To Know and Why It’s Important

Children as young as 6 months should get vaccinated

Pregnant person with yellow glow emanating from them.
December 6, 2023
Is Pregnancy Glow a Real Thing?

More radiant skin may appear due to physiological responses to pregnancy

Natural antibiotics, pills and herbs, displayed on bamboo spoons on wooden table.
December 5, 2023
Why You Shouldn’t Self-Treat With ‘Natural Antibiotics’

Natural doesn’t mean they’re safe or effective

Female swimmer in the water at edge of a pool
December 1, 2023
Can Exercise Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

Physical activity and weight management can minimize your chances of getting the disease

Two people standing in the cold.
November 29, 2023
10 Colds Not To Catch This Winter

The flu, RSV, COVID-19, pneumonia and more typically circulate during cold weather months

Parent breastfeeding baby on bed, against the headboard.
November 27, 2023
Looking for Foods To Increase Your Milk Supply? Think Big Picture

No single food will increase your milk, but an overall healthy diet will help

Parent uses manual baby aspirator to open up nasal passages of baby.
November 22, 2023
Prevent Phlegm in Your Baby’s Throat With a Nasal Aspirator

Keeping your baby’s airways clear of mucus helps with breathing and feeding

Two different vaccines and needles displayed in foreground.
November 22, 2023
Which Vaccines Can You Get at the Same Time?

Getting routine vaccinations together can save you time and may be more effective

Trending Topics

group of hands holding different beverages
November 14, 2023
10 Myths About Drinking Alcohol You Should Stop Repeating

Coffee won’t cure a hangover and you definitely shouldn’t mix your cocktail with an energy drink

Person applies moisturizer as part of their skin care routine after a shower.
November 10, 2023
Korean Skin Care Routines: What You Need To Know

Focus on the philosophy — replenishing and respecting your skin — not necessarily the steps

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
November 8, 2023
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try