Direct Skill Instruction for Students with Autism

This approach first identifies social skills that need to be developed with autistic students. Then it determines the steps required to build those skills, and provides practice in a variety of settings.

Most of the social skills programs for individuals with autism have three major components:

  1. Initial task analyses of skills considered important to the child in natural settings
  2. Sequential teaching of each of the task-analyzed steps to criterion using modeling, repeated trials, prompts, and reinforcement with peers in the natural environment
  3. A multiple-exemplars approach to cross-setting generalization

For example, Gaylord-Ross and Pitts-Conway taught adolescents with autism to effectively use age-appropriate games (such as video games) and leisure materials (such as chewing gum) through task analyses and verbal-physical prompts. Independent completion of an entire task resulted in reinforcement. Following this initial object instruction, the adolescents were taught to initiate interactions with peers to engage in the activities they had learned.

This instruction involved the use of socially competent peers, an instructional script that made use of role playing, and eventual introduction of the adolescents with autism. Several peers were used to successfully transfer the skills. A similar procedure was used by Breen, Haring, Pitts-Conway, and Gaylord-Ross to teach appropriate social interactions within the context of work environments.

There are several advantages to direct social instruction procedures:

  • The individual with autism gains significantly in independence, with more control over the time and place of social interactions.

  • The games become associated with social initiations and responses when paired with concurrent instruction in social interactions and repeated practice. That is, the games begin to act as prompts for social interaction.

  • Most importantly, instruction that uses task and prompt/reinforcement strategies repeatedly has been shown to be an effective social interaction intervention for even the most socially withdrawn children and youth with autism.

There is, however, one primary disadvantage to using direct-instruction approach to social competence. Research suggests that each stable social environment (e.g., classroom, workplace) represents an individualized set of local norms for socially appropriate and facilitative behavior.

By directly teaching skills outside the context of these norms, we may significantly reduce the probability that the skills will be naturally reinforced and thus “trapped” by preferred social environments. Therefore, it is desirable to provide social skills direct instruction in combination with other social interaction instruction.

Excerpted from Social Skills for Students with Autism.

More on Promoting Social Development for Students with Autism

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