One of the more pronounced features of Autism Spectrum Disorder is the person’s lack of social skills. Autistic people often find themselves having great difficulty in interacting with others and putting themselves in the middle of a social engagement. No matter how much they try, there are limits to what autistic persons can do, and most of the time, they will need the help of intervention services such as a social skills therapy in order to improve their interpersonal skills and build a relatively normal life.

Being socially awkward can lead to some serious life issues such as bullying or public ridicule that degrades a person’s self-worth. When an autistic person feels more alienated because they don’t have friends or due to the fact that only a very few people understand them, they will easily feel lost and discouraged. Without the presence and help of an experienced specialist, those who suffer from social withdrawal may not see the light at the end of the tunnel and will be forced to accept the way they are even though they are capable of so many things. A social skills therapist is there to help autistic persons build their basic social skills and provide solutions to more complex social issues.

Why Social Skills Therapy?

One can say that social skills are a naturally-acquired set of basic knowledge that is needed by everyone to interact and survive in this ever-challenging world. Although social skills are not directly related to building and fostering relationships, they are needed in managing daily routine and in matters of self-preservation. Things like maintaining eye contact while talking to another person, using polite words such as “please”, “sorry” or “thank you” and observing formalities when required, are just some of the basic social skills that a neurotypical person is expected to learn from simple observation. But for autistic individuals, these basic social skills can be hard to learn and understand, especially when there’s a lack of guidance and education to reinforce these skills in their daily activities.

Social skills and communication skills are not interchangeable. You can’t just say that a socially aversive autistic person will not be able to communicate verbally. As a matter of fact, there are many cases of very verbal persons with high-functioning autism who can speak fluently to other people. The problem arises when the autistic person fails to read social cues and respond appropriately, which can make them offend the other person’s feelings, disrespect their opinions, and ask them inappropriate questions. Through social skills therapy, autistic individuals are made more aware of their own need for social interaction and the importance of socialization in improving their condition. Most importantly, they are trained to develop these social skills in a variety of therapy methods and activities.

How Does a Social Skills Therapist Work?

Unlike other types of therapists who need to follow specific standards and requirements to be able to practice, social skills therapists may have varying degrees and types of educational background and experience. This is mainly because social skills therapy is still a growing field of specialty that was born from the increasing demand for skill-based training for persons with disorders, including those with ASD. Hence, every social skill therapist existing today is working through their own standards and expertise, without directives from a common association or governing body.

The knowledge and expertise of social skills therapists may come from different sources and mechanisms. They could have read about published training materials written by well-known expert therapists and researchers and utilized these materials in developing their own practice concepts and techniques. It could also be that these therapists, who have a major background in other types of therapy programs, were able to learn more about the nature of autism from constantly interacting with autistic participants. This special experience may have paved the way for them to develop fundamentals about social skills therapy that they are now applying and constantly improving in their own practices.

Because of the lack of standardized approach or methodologies, every social skills therapist may employ their own style of training. They will design the program according to their own assessment and personal knowledge about social problems associated with autism. In a school-based setup, for instance, it is common for social skills therapist to introduce group activities in the sessions where autistic students are mixed with their neurotypical peers. These activities can be done inside the classroom, in the playground, in the canteen, or any other area where external distractions are eliminated. These activities are generally composed of games, sports, and recreations that are designed to stimulate interaction, communication and social responses out from the fun and enjoyment.

Other types of social skills therapy may not provide the same level of enjoyment, but can still be equally effective. Drama therapy, for instance, employs the use of theatrical elements in encouraging autistic individuals to channel their feelings into their scripts and roles in outlined situations. It will also build their empathy, as they try to figure out what their character must feel and behave in a given context. There are also video-based therapies where a specific video is shown to the participants, where the actor portrays a set of behavior or skill. The viewers will then be asked to imitate what they saw in the video, or share what they have learned in the video.

Finding a Social Skills Therapist

Like physical therapy services, programs provided by a social skills therapist may usually be excluded from your health insurance coverage. And unlike other therapists working in autism-related issues, finding a social skills therapists can be very challenging due to the fact that there is no standard criteria or qualification given for a practitioner to become an official therapist in this field. Even school districts and early intervention providers do not cover the area of social skills therapy hence it’s also least likely that they can refer you a therapist.

But if you find more than one social skills therapist practicing in your area, it would be ideal to attend a session or two yourself, so you can assess whether that therapist can indeed address your child’s needs.