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Social skills training for kids with autism

Social skills training: Everything you should know

Updated: August 29, 2023 · 7 Minute Read

Alex Hurtado

Reviewed by:

Alex Hurtado


  • Social skills training (SST) focuses on modifying autistic behavior to conform to neurotypical (non-autistic) social norms.
  • Misunderstandings about autistic behaviors, like eye contact, can lead to inappropriate intervention.
  • It's important to create inclusive environments that embrace diverse communication styles and focus on fostering meaningful connections rather than trying to make autistic individuals conform to neurotypical standards.

Social skills training helps kids who struggle with social interactions. Social skills such as understanding a person’s tone of voice or non-verbal cues (like body language) let us know if someone around us is in a rush, relaxed, happy, sad, and more. But not everyone socializes or communicates the same…


Social and communication differences in autistic people

Many people with autism struggle with social interactions. Social skills training (SST) has been a commonly recommended service for autistic kids for many years. But now we understand that what is seen as social “deficits” in autism are actually communication differences in neurodivergent and neurotypical people. This is called “the double-empathy problem.”


What is social skills training? 

SST is often associated with the fields of applied behavior analysis (ABA), special education, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and relationship-based therapy. The goal of STT is to modify the autistic child’s behavior and communication to “fit in” more with neurotypical peers.


Your child may be taught how to start and maintain conversations, interpret non-verbal cues, understand neurotypical social norms, and manage social interactions in a typical way. While many autistic people have found STT to be harmful, others feel they have benefitted from learning how to “mask” their autistic traits.


Masking is harmful to autistic people, but sometimes masking is necessary for safety. This is especially true for marginalized children with autism, like Black and brown kids


SST usually focuses on the neurotypical rules and behaviors that shape how individuals interact with one another. SST programs may focus on many different points including: 

  • Initiating conversations
  • Greetings
  • Eye contact 
  • How to behave in specific social and community settings (according to social norms)
  • Understanding emotions and facial expressions
  • Gestures and body language 
  • Assertiveness
  • Empathy


SST programs can differ based on the social skills and age of the participants. For toddlers, SST may cover how to maintain eye contact, take turns, and wait for others. SST for older children may include classroom behavior, expressing opinions, and keeping friendships.


Misunderstanding neurodivergent communication and social skills

STT seeks to “correct” many autistic behaviors that are simply misunderstood. Let’s look at each of these behaviors and explain what’s really happening.


  • Poor eye contact: Many autistic people find eye contact uncomfortable or even painful. Neurotypical people consider eye contact an important part of social interactions. People may even think someone is lying or uninterested if they don’t make eye contact. STT may teach autistic kids how to “fake” eye contact by staring at someone’s forehead or nose, for example.
  • Struggle with empathy: Autistic people may be more empathetic than neurotypical people – they just don’t always express it in ways people can recognize. Others may think that your child doesn’t care or is in their own world, but that’s not true. Your child likely cares very much, they just may not know how to show it in ways others understand.
  • Unable to respond to disappointment, anger, teasing, and confusion in an age-appropriate manner: Struggling with impulse control and emotional regulation is true for all children because their brains are not fully developed. But this can be even more intense for neurodivergent children, such as those with autism or ADHD. They may have big reactions that they can’t fully control. They may not know how to handle anger or disappointment in healthy ways. Teasing and confusion can be difficult social situations to grasp. Your child may take an innocent tease from a friend as a serious insult. They may feel very dysregulated by confusion and not know how to process it. 
  • Lack of imagination: This is another myth about autism. Autistic kids don’t lack imaginative play skills, they just may not share their imagination in typical ways. Autistic kids may also be very pragmatic and not understand make-believe games that peers create. This doesn’t mean your child doesn’t have an imagination. They just might need help understanding how pretend games work.
  • Struggle with understanding when to let others talk: While your child may seem rude for interrupting or not letting others get a word in, it is not intentional. Most autistic people love to infodump about their interests or favorite topics. They might go on for a long time about what matters to them without knowing you want them to stop. And even if they do know you want them to stop talking, they may not be able to control the urge to finish what they started.
  • Appear self-centered: This is another common misconception about autism. Autistic people are not self-centered. Many do not express concern or empathy in typical ways. They may seem “tuned out” to the world around them. But rest assured, even when your child seems a million miles away, they are likely still absorbing everything going on around them and more. Learn more about this in our connection guide.
  • Struggle with starting and maintaining friendships: Finding people who understand and appreciate your uniqueness is difficult. Many children with autism are bullied or excluded because they’re just different. They may not always know how to relate to their peers. They may also struggle with social cues or social norms like checking in on friends frequently, or noticing when a friend is upset with them.
  • Interrupt others: Autistic people may struggle with social cues like knowing when a person is done speaking, or when it’s their turn to talk. Because of this, it may appear they are interrupting. It’s not intentional or personal. Autistic people can also be pretty blunt and curious in how they communicate. This can also look like interrupting or being argumentative.
  • Struggle to speak when stressed, confused, or angry: Everyone can struggle with speech when they’re nervous. But some autistic people may have speech tics, selective mutism, or other speech concerns. Some autistic people also describe a brain/body disconnection, where they can’t always get the words out they want to say. To learn more about autism and speech, check out our guide to nonverbal autism.
  • Struggle or fail to understand the consequences of their actions: Cause and effect can be difficult for all children, but especially autistic children. There may be a delay or lack of connection for them between the action and the consequence. For example, if the floor is wet and your child slips and falls, they may not recognize that the fall was caused by the water. Similarly, if your child yells at a classmate, they may not understand why the classmate won’t play with them the next day at school. It takes time for kids to develop this awareness.
  • Lack of proper understanding of proper classroom behavior: There are certain social norms in our society that govern the way we behave in public. Just because a social norm exists doesn’t mean it’s right or the best way to do things. But in some cases, social norms are important (like wearing clothes when you leave the house). It’s best to explain to your child why a social norm is important. It’s not necessary to push social norms that aren’t required for safety. You can work with school staff to create accommodations for your child’s needs.
  • Talk with an unusual tone, pitch, speed, and intonation of voice: Autistic people often don’t even realize what the tone of their voice is. People may perceive your child as being rude, but that’s likely not the case at all. Listen to your child’s words, not their tone. Many children with autism are Gestalt Language Processors, and like the way things sound. You may hear your child speaking in an “unusual” tone or using an interesting intonation when they speak – this isn’t a bad thing! Check out Meaningful Speech for more info.
  • Struggle to focus on tasks due to sensory overload: It’s important to know that what looks like focus in one child may not look like focus in another. For example, many children with ADHD or autism focus best while moving. They may be looking away, fidgeting, or walking around the room – but they’re still learning! This is one way autistic kids may cope with the tremendous amount of information their brains are processing. Forcing a child to sit still or pretend to focus (aka “building up tolerance”) will only make them feel more overwhelmed. It will not help them accomplish tasks or make friends.


What happens in social skills training? 

SST uses evidence-based techniques to modify your child’s social skills. Here are some key components:


  • Structured learning: Your child will receive instructions and participate in activities that help them understand and practice social skills in a supported environment.
  • Visual supports: Visual aids, social stories, and visual schedules can make it easier for your child to understand social expectations and routines.
  • Role-playing and modeling: Your child will practice social behaviors, conversation skills, and problem-solving techniques through role-playing exercises.
  • Peer interaction: Your child will have the chance to interact with peers through group activities, games, and projects. These will help them make social connections and learn how to work as a team.
  • Emotional regulation: Your child will learn strategies to recognize and express their emotions, develop self-control skills, and handle anxiety or sensory challenges.
  • Generalization: To apply the skills learned in real-life situations, your child may go on outings, trips, and participate in community activities outside of the structured setting.


Why are social skills important? 

Social skills are the skills we use every day to communicate and interact with those around us. They can be verbal and non-verbal.  They include speech, facial expressions, and body language.


Social skills impact the way your child interacts with the world around them. They also play a crucial role in a child's development. 


For kids with special needs, social interactions can be tough. Their unique way of communicating may not always be well received by others. Certain social norms exist, like making eye contact, are uncomfortable for autistic people. Improved social skills not only enhance their ability to form meaningful connections and friendships but their emotional well-being and self-esteem.



Social skills are crucial for daily interactions and child development. While social skills training has been recommended for autistic individuals, it's important to recognize that what may be seen as deficits are often communication differences. 


Fostering inclusive environments and embracing diverse communication methods can enhance social skills. Improved social skills can help promote meaningful connections and emotional well-being. Understanding and supporting diverse communication styles is key to creating an inclusive society for all.

Dive Deeper

Article References

  1. Cuncic, A. (2020, June 30). An overview of social skills training. Verywell Mind. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from 
  2. Kraemer, I. Understanding Non-Autistic Social Skills. Autistic Science Person. Published July 28, 2022. Accessed July 6, 2023.
  3. Kraemer, I. Why Social Skills Training Does Not Help Autistic People. Autistic Science Person. Published November 28, 2021.
  4. Kraemer, I. Neurotypicals: Listen to Our Words, Not Our Tone. Autistic Science Person. Published January 9, 2021. Accessed July 6, 2023.
  5. Crompton CJ, Ropar D, Evans-Williams CV, Flynn EG, Fletcher-Watson S. Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism. 2020;24(7):1704-1712. doi:10.1177/1362361320919286