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How Does ABA Therapy Help Social Skills?

Sameeha Bakr May 31, 2024

Social skills are essential in building connections and maintaining relationships in a child’s life. 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is an evidence-based approach that focuses on introducing and developing critical social skills that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) need to succeed. This may be anything from teaching a child how to approach a peer to ordering a meal at their favorite restaurant. Children with autism often have difficulties with social skills and communication, so ABA therapy treatment plans are designed to foster those skills in a tailored learning environment.

A child writes in a workbook

What are Social Skills?

Social skills are the skills we all use every day to interact and communicate with others. The basic social skills include both verbal and non-verbal language, including gestures, body language, and speech.  Social skills begin developing early in a child’s life, and there are many resources available to parents and caregivers that can help them to know if their child is reaching those milestones. Children who have those strong social skills early on are more likely to form positive relationships with family members, friends, teachers, and colleagues later in life. 

ABA Strategies for Social Skills

Two children look at a tablet togetherABA therapy teaches unique skills that are important for each individual by using evidence-based approaches through the science of learning and behavior. Therapists use many ABA therapy strategies to help their clients improve their social skills, including:

  1. Role Playing: When role playing, children will act out social scenarios with another person in a safe, controlled environment, to prepare for that engagement in a real scenario. 
  2. Behavior Skills Training (BST): This teaching strategy consists of 4 components: Providing clear instructions, modeling the behavior, rehearsing, and providing feedback. The next stage in the process is repeating those same steps until reaching the desired goal. 
  3. Natural Environment Teaching (NET): NET involves creating learning opportunities for a client to interact with others in their natural environment. For example, RBTs plan group activities that involve social games such as musical chairs, board games, and outdoor activities. This teaching strategy promotes generalization for when the client may encounter the same interactions in their everyday life.
  4. Visual Supports: Visual aids like schedules, charts, and calendars can help guide a client to completing a desired goal independently. 
  5. Circle Time and Group Sessions: In these sessions, clients practice multiple skills at the same time, including staying in an instructional area, paying attention to and following instructions, playing and interacting with peers, and participating in group activities like organizing the calendar or dressing up a weather character for the day.

Improving Social Skills using ABA Therapy

A group of children paint.Your child’s therapy team will tailor their ABA therapy programming to their individual needs. Before starting ABA therapy, a clinical supervisor conducts assessments to evaluate the areas of focus for therapy. The clinical supervisor also involves parents or caregivers in the treatment planning process to understand their concerns. Assessments help the clinical supervisor determine the client’s current skills and identify prerequisite skills that they can address before working on more complex goals. For instance, a child may need to learn how to request an item from a peer and follow instructions before engaging in cooperative play like board games.

The development of social skills takes time, and achieving these foundational skills prepares a client for their next goal. Sometimes, to better set them up for success, your child’s therapy team may prioritize focusing on behavior reduction before introducing social skills lessons. The reason why clinical supervisors tailor goals is to ensure they are personalized to the individual needs and skill sets of their clients. 

As children get older, or when working with young adults, clinical supervisors can ask the client what social skills are important to them to achieve their goals. For example, some clients may not have a strong interest in forming many friendships; however, they might want to work on attending a cooking class. The clients’ interests are embedded in programming to encourage active participation in therapy and to create motivation for reaching their goals. 

Throughout their lives, people encounter the need for social skills daily. Developing these skills during early childhood equips individuals with valuable tools to handle life’s challenges, such as problem-solving, emotional regulation, and active listening. ABA therapy employs customized strategies and personalized approaches to enhance social skills, empowering clients to achieve their goals.