Using Your Social Language Skills to Communicate with Children with Autism

River PediatricBy Cherie River, MS-CCC-SLP

Did you ever wish you could follow your child to school? Do you find yourself longing to be nestled on their shoulder so you can quietly nudge them to say “hi” to a friend or ask for a turn on the swings?

Don’t you wish you could whisper in his ear the best “comeback” in the world when a mean spirited peer laughs at him? Your every instinct as a parent is to protect and help. This instinct is magnified when you have a child with Autism or a child with limited social skills. You are not alone.

As a Speech Language Pathologist I often find myself ending a session by telling the parent “If only I could be there on the playground…”  When we are engaged in the natural turns and twists in life as adults we rely on our social language skills to get us out. We rely on the subtle facial gestures and body cues by the listener to know if they are interested in our story or checking out the conversation across the room. We rely heavily on social language skills at work to get new contracts or promotions by simply being likable and friendly.

We rely on social language skills from ordering food the way we prefer in a restaurant to allowing a more hurried shopper to quickly roll their cart in front of our cart. We rely on social language skills to build friendships and to fall in love. Parents need to know how important it is to talk to their child about their social experiences. How do parents approach such off-limit topics with their child? Simple! Just analyze what YOU did today that required social language skills.

Did you get annoyed today when waiting in line at the bank and someone else very cleverly got in front of you? Confess that you did nothing and said nothing and held it all in. Tell your child what you wished you would have said. Give your child funny scenarios where you could over-reacted. After bursting into laughter together ask your child why that option might not work so well. Then ask him to come up with creative ways to make the person know that it is not polite to line-jump.

After you discuss your social language experiences in which you felt awkward or uncomfortable, it opens the door for your child to feel safe sharing his most vulnerable experiences he encountered at school today. Feel free to laugh and come up with absurd ideas on how he could have responded. Allow your child to try to think of solutions with you. Avoid saying things like “Haven’t I told you to stand up for yourself??” That means nothing to a kid who thrives on order, routines, and scripted responses.

Kids with poor social skills can’t just pull the words out of the sky to “stand up” for themselves. They need to be taught. They need to be told that we all feel awkward and search for the right way to say things even as adults. Kids need confidence knowing that their “comebacks” are funny and well-timed! Give your child specific examples of what he could have said in that situation at school. If you can’t think of the right words (like you couldn’t at the bank today) teach him a gesture to brush off a peer’s remark. Have him look in the mirror and practice things like shrugging his shoulders or making a “whatever” expression on his face.

Practice makes perfect even when it comes to social language skills. Be sure to share your ideas and discussions with your child’s teachers so they can help carry-over. Also, remember that we all had to be taught social skills. Not one of us was born with the knowledge of each nuance of life. Kids with limited social skills just need a little more real-life help and encouragement. So, we may not be able to follow them onto the playground and whisper in their ear but we sure can share our own struggles with social language and allow our children to see that we all need to work on it.

Cherie River, MS-CCC-SLP is the Director/Owner of River Pediatric Therapies. If you have questions about your child’s social skills please call 412-767-5967 for a free screening or visit

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