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A Guide To Developing Social Skills In Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder

social skills
Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder can develop social skills in much the same way other skills are are taught and learned

Autism Spectrum Disorder, officially known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, is primarily a social disorder. It affects how people relate to others, including trouble inferring how other people think and feel; disinterest in engaging with others; trouble understanding emotions and how they are expressed; and literal interpretation of non-literal language such as figures of speech, metaphors and sarcasm.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is present at birth, but the fact that it is congenital does not mean it can’t be corrected. Think instead of ASD as a deficit in learnable social skills which, like speed reading, playing the piano, drawing, learning a foreign language and other skills can be studied, developed, mastered.

Social skills are not always simple. Take greeting others, for example. How someone greets a stranger is different from the type of greeting one would use with a family member, co-worker or cashier at the local grocery store. Learning the distinctions in greeting different people in different settings involves multiple considerations and a complex decision-making process developed over numerous instances of meeting and greeting many different people. Nevertheless, in its essence, developing social skills involves the same process of learning as is the case with any other competence.

Social Skills Training Strategies

The essential goals for developing and improving social skills in adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder include:

  • Increasing social motivation, that is, the desire to engage with people in a satisfying and mutually enjoyable way.
  • Increasing the number of people one engages with.
  • Improving the ways one responds to other people
  • Reducing the behaviors that interfere with appropriate engagement with others
  • Promoting the ability to generalize the social skills one has learned to other people in other settings.

An Individualized Social Skills Training Plan

What does it look like for an adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder to develop effective social skills? First there must be a focus on building positive, beneficial behaviors such as helping, sharing and cooperating. It must also be designed to fit the needs of the person with ASD as opposed to making the person fit a pre-chosen strategy. And it must be derived from a thorough understanding of how and why the person currently engages with other people.

This latter consideration can be broken down into the following social skills deficits:

  • Lack of social knowledge — adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty recognizing appropriate social goals, for example, realizing the distinction between a friendship and a romantic interest. Some adults with ASD lack knowledge about ways to accomplish socially appropriate goals. Others are not sensitive to social cues that indicate what is appropriate behavior in specific situations. Each of these are indications of deficits in knowing what is correct behavior in different social situations.
  • Lack of practice — Many adults with ASD have not developed sufficient practice in acquiring social skills. Either they haven’t had the opportunity to learn those skills or they have but have not received feedback about how to behave correctly in certain social settings. One goal of skills training is to provide opportunities to practice social skills and receive feedback about how those skills are performed.
  • Lack of opportunities — When one’s circumstances lack opportunities to develop social skills or those circumstances don’t provide the necessary signals of how to engage appropriately, learning social skills is extremely hard. Training for social skills must include coaching, which demonstrate the desired behavior in real-life and the cues that are necessary to evoke a desired socially appropriate behavior.
  • Lack of reinforcement — Practice and feedback are effective ways of teaching social skills only when combined with reinforcement of the desired behavior. The ASD adult is prompted to perform a skill and then given constructive feedback. That feedback is intended to increase the frequency of desired behavior and reduce the frequency of undesired behavior.

This description of social skills training for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a broad outline of the essential conditions for success in promoting positive social engagement with others. As such, they do not describe the specific steps in social skills training that should be taken to ensure success. In my next blog, I will describe an approach to social skills development that redefines social skills and points towards an easy-to-follow way of promoting social skills that anyone can teach, encourage and learn.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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