Many students with an educational label of autism do well academically in school and therefore receive minimal supports from special education teachers or therapists. However, these students may be slipping through the cracks when it comes to addressing their real area of need: social-emotional skills. For these students, passing their exams and classes may mask their deficits in other parts of the school day, including making friends, developing rapport with teachers, collaborating with peers for group projects, participating in extracurricular activities, and navigating interactions with others. Many of these students report feeling isolated, lonely, and even depressed.
Social skills instruction is easier to embed in classes that use a self-contained model, as the teacher has more flexibility to both address issues as they arise and provide direct instruction, whereas a general education algebra teacher with 26 students probably will not. At the secondary level, it also becomes harder for therapists and special educators to pull this particular group of students from their general education classes, because time missed can be detrimental to their academic success.
Social Skills as an Elective
Offering social skills as an elective class presents a solution to those difficulties. My school system, Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, has been offering a social skills elective class to middle and high school students for 10 years. Initially, it was only offered to students with an educational label of autism who were being served in general education classes. In addition to those students, we now also offer an elective social skills class to any student whose IEP team (which includes the student) feels that they require the class to achieve the social skills goals listed on their IEP.
Special education teachers and assistants teach the classes with push-in support or collaboration with speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, and counseling staff. The teacher and assistant have the availability to provide intermittent support to the students’ general education classrooms in order to help them generalize the skills being taught. In addition to the classroom instruction, the teachers and assistants periodically take their students to community locations, so that they can work on skills such as waiting in lines, being mindful of personal space on public transportation, and communicating with restaurant staff in a naturalistic environment.
Students who have taken the class report that it has helped them develop a community, form acquaintances and friendships, and feel more motivated to attend school. Some of our graduates report that taking the class has helped them in college, on the job, and with dating and other relationships.
Starting a Social Skills Elective at Your School
If you are interested in starting a social skills elective in your school, these tips can help you get started:
- Decide what, if any, criteria you will use to determine which students will be in the classes.
- Determine how to have the class listed in your school system’s list of class offerings.
- Carefully select instructors who have a background and interest in teaching social skills.
- Choose curricula that meet the age and learning needs of each class. We use a variety of purchased and teacher-made curricula.
- Provide opportunities for professional development to all staff who will be involved with the class.
- Collaborate with the administration of each school so that all of the school staff have a basic understanding of the class and its goals.
- Determine how you will evaluate progress. We use a social skills inventory.
- Include the students in the discussion about whether they should take the class, so that they will be on board.
- Reach out to other school systems that have implemented a similar class for specific ideas.
While starting any new type of class can be a challenge, offering this particular one can have tremendous long-term benefits for students with autism.
White, S.W., Roberson-Nay, R. Anxiety, Social Deficits, and Loneliness in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders. J Autism Dev Disord 39, 1006–1013 (2009) doi:10.1007/s10803-009-0713-8
Deborah Hammer has worked professionally for over two decades on behalf of individuals with disabilities and their families. She is currently employed by Arlington Public Schools as an autism specialist, providing training and support to school staff, parents, and students. She is the founder and facilitator of Cool Aspies, a social club for young adults with autism and related disabilities. She received the Eileen Crawford Award for Educators in 2017 and has received the Arc of Northern Virginia’s Educational Leadership Award. She is co-chair of the Northern Virginia Transition Coalition and secretary of the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board.