What is Social Skills Training in the Context of Applied Behavior Analysis?

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Social skills training—a component of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy—is a set of techniques designed to strengthen an individual’s social skills. Social skills training addresses the lack of social intuition that’s often a hallmark among those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), mental disorders, and developmental disabilities.

While social rules and conventions are learned naturally by most, among individuals with ASD and other developmental or mental disorders, they are a foreign concept. For example, even the most seemingly simplistic of social interactions – a greeting, for example – can be a herculean task for someone with ASD to master.

Interpreting social cues, understanding other people’s intentions, and processing when and how to respond and interact with others in social situations are not innate abilities among these individuals, who are often said to be ‘socially blind.’

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Social skills training addresses characteristics that are inherent to those with social deficits. For example, individuals with ASD display a common set of characteristics, such as a lack of interest building social relationships or engaging in social situations; a lack of understanding of nonverbal cues and complex emotions; and a lack of understanding of nonliteral language, including sarcasm and figures of speech.

Therefore, to properly integrate into society, develop meaningful interpersonal relationships, and simply manage in social settings, this population must learn social behaviors.

What are the Strategies of Social Skills Training?

Through social skills training strategies, people with social skills deficits learn to navigate society and understand societal norms. Social skills training addresses social deficiencies (whether as a result of development, mental illness, or injury) and breaks them down into manageable skills to master.

Examples of social skills training strategies include:

  • Social narratives/social stories: Behavior analysts create personalized, written stories (often with accompanying pictures) that help individuals better understand how to properly behave in certain situations. The story includes specific details regarding their social deficit and includes their thoughts and other people’s thoughts as key elements of the story. It allows the behavior analyst to implement “what ifs” into the story to allow individuals to understand how choosing alternative behaviors can benefit them in social situations. For example: “When I bite my friends, they are sad, and I can’t play with them. When I don’t bite my friends, they are happy, and we can play together.”
  • Comic Strip Conversations: Behavior therapists may create social stories in a comic strip format, using “thought bubbles” to represent what others may be feeling during a social interaction. Because individuals lacking social skills also have difficulty being empathetic, this social skills training technique can be very helpful. An example would include a picture of the child biting his friend, with his friend’s thought bubble saying, “I am sad because my friend bit me. I don’t want to play with my friend anymore.”
  • Hidden Curriculum: Hidden curriculum deals with teaching individuals about unspoken social rules or cues. For example, a child with ASD might not understand that he can’t unwrap his friend’s birthday gifts or eat his classmate’s lunch. Hidden curriculum outlines the dos and don’ts of navigating in certain social situations.
  • Social Scripts: Social scripts allow individuals to engage in role playing. Through written scripts, they can act out common social situations with the behavior therapist or other adult. For example, a social script that focuses on teaching a child with ASD to learn to share may look like:

(child) “May I please use your crayon?”

(behavior therapist) “Yes, you can. Thank you for asking politely to use my crayon.”

There is also a host of computer and tablet-based games that are focused on social skills training. Social skills groups, where children with social deficits interact with their typical peers in structured settings, are also useful ways to encourage positive socialization.

Behavior therapists must be able to modify and personalize social skills training strategies to suit the age of the individual and the social skills being learned. For example, a small child with ASD may need social skills training to learn how to share his toys or not bite his friends, while an adolescent with ASD may need to develop the proper social skills to go out on a date or develop an intimate relationship.