One of the defining features of autism spectrum disorder is difficulties in social situations. While most children learn social skills naturally, teens with autism benefit from structured social skills training. However, there’s a difference between teaching social skills and encouraging teens to memorize social scripts, as social expectations vary from situation to situation. This is why we integrate social skills training into group therapy.

What are Social Scripts?

Using social scripts to teach children on the spectrum how to engage socially can be a great strategy to improve understanding of events and situations. Examples of social situations where social script might be useful may include understanding expectations or rules, how to participate in new activities, or how to manage changes. 

As teens with autism sometimes have a more difficult time picking up on social cues or understanding unstated social rules, it can be helpful to provide guidelines to help them navigate difficult social situations. This might include how to deal with social anxiety, maintaining friendships, “sharing” friends with other people, sharing personal information (such as online), and recognizing when they other people may be trying to take advantage of them. 

Why Should Teens with Autism Be Careful with Social Scripts?

Recent research exploring compensatory strategies to hide symptoms from friends and family named social scripts as one of the most common strategies, including things like copying gestures and facial expressions of others, learning when to laugh at a joke without understanding why it is funny and deliberately making eye contact, even when it might be really uncomfortable. They concluded that while social scripts may help teens feel like they “fit in” more, trying to follow them to an exact science can lead to increased social anxiety.

One issue with social scripts is that they are often memorized and followed rigidly. Social scripts can help guide a conversation, but unfortunately, social rules are not universal and they change depending on the context. For example, they may be taught that it is polite to shake hands with someone when you meet them, but this usually applies to adults or professionals, not someone they have a crush on. 

As teens with autism often struggle with rigid thinking, it is important to emphasize that social skills are fluid and dynamic, rather than absolute. Different relationships require different social skills and everyone has different relationship styles. Teens who are naturally introverted may feel pressure to socialize frequently, but it may actually be more beneficial for them to keep a tight circle or to form online relationships.

How Can Teens with Autism Develop Better Social Skills?

  • When teaching social skills, it is important to use words that aren’t too specific, like “sometimes” or “usually” to encourage flexible thinking. Talking in absolutes like “always” or “never” can reinforce black and white thinking. 
  • Focus on teaching positive social skills, rather than criticizing “negative” social skills. Instead of saying, “don’t interrupt someone while they’re speaking,” recommend “looking for cues that it is your turn to respond.” This approach encourages them to expand social skills rather than discard their current way of interacting. From there, they may realize that they receive more positive feedback with new social skills, which reinforces their decision to use them.
  • Emphasize that teens always have options in social situations. Rather than suggesting there is only one way to respond to a situation, present multiple alternative scenarios. This might include taking another person’s perspective, choosing to distance themselves if they feel overwhelmed, or practicing assertiveness.  
  • Look for alternative explanations for difficulties in social situations. Limited social skills are not always the root cause. Sometimes, teens may be experiencing difficulties with social anxiety, sensory processing, attachment, or they may have a history of negative social interactions that are getting in the way of positive social relationships, rather than a lack of appropriate social scripts. It is possible that the way they interact may be “appropriate” based on other information. 

At Seven Stars, we believe that social skills are best learned experientially, through everyday social interactions, role-playing, and recreation activities. Our goal is to empower teens to self-monitor their social interactions and to explore what they value in relationships, rather than adhering to fixed social expectations. Our staff offer positive feedback and help teens identify their strengths in relationships and offer guidance when they are struggling. 

Discover Seven Stars Can Help 

Seven Stars RTC is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 struggling with Autism-related issues. The program provides acute care stabilization, residential treatment, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, skill building, and positive psychology. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control. We can help your family today!

Contact us at 844-601-1167 for more information about social skills for autistic teens.  We can help your family today!