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Help! I Don’t Understand! How to Teach Social Cues to a Child with ASD

Social and emotional development is an incredibly important part of child development. From an early age, we learn to read social cues and codes. This understanding of the world, allows us to function in our societies and understand what is expected of us. The first five years of a child’s life are integral to forming and creating these social maps in our brains; yet sometimes these maps may not develop. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are an example of these maps not forming typically. 

Social and Emotional Development

As young children, our brains are incredibly malleable and are shaped according to our society’s social cues. Overtime neurotypical children will build a “map” of how to in act in situations and with others (Autism Speaks). Every society is different, and thus this “map” of how to act is different according to your geographic location, age, gender, and other demographic features. For example, in some cultures (such as American) it is considered polite to finish your plate of food; in other countries, (such as China) it is considered rude to finish your plate. In America when you finish your plate it is polite, because we view it as a compliment to the chef- the food was so good we finished all of it. In China it is rude to finish your plate, it is like you're telling your host that he or she did not provide you enough food. Social and emotional development, is a very subjective thing in our world. Therefore, as children learning the social rules in our community is important.

According to scientists, children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have non-typically developing brains. This can be traced to a few sources in the brain, where synapses and matter are not typically developing; one such place in the brain is known as the superior temporal sulcus (STS). “The STS is attuned to socially meaningful stimuli, such as a person’s tone of voice, facial expression or body movements. By capturing such information, it plays a role in perceiving another person’s thoughts and feelings and predicting their actions” (Spectrum). 


Social and Emotional Development in Children with ASD

In individuals who have ASD, the STS is not typically developed. This means that the area of the brain responsible for being able to perceive and understand social cues, is not typically developed. This can lead to problems reading people’s emotions, understanding someone’s actions, and even difficulty understanding speech. As a result, children with ASD are often marginalized, or even bullied by other children. 

Therefore, children with ASD cannot pick up on subtle social cues. For example, as a society we all know that when someone asks “Hi, how are you?”, a proper response would be “Good, how are you?”. Usually this is all the interaction consists of, it is our way of greeting one another and being friendly. We do not expect the other person to go on a long rant about how they are, even though that is literally what we are asking (Autism Awareness). This is an example of a subtle social cue that children with ASD may not pick up on. As a society we have hidden or “secret” rules, that govern how we interact with one another. Children are taught these rules at a young age, and are expected to follow them for the rest of their life. We learn to keep our elbows off the table, but why? What is so offensive about keeping our elbows on the table when we eat? There may not be a obvious reason that a social rule is set in place, but we all know that it is respectful to follow them. 

Sometimes, there are social rules that we have set in place for safety or to protect others from hurting each other, whether that be emotionally or physically. Children with ASD often have difficult times with these rules, because it is hard for them to understand emotions. We know that when we yell at someone it can hurt the other person’s feelings and make them sad, because we have empathy. We can relate to having our feelings hurt, and don’t want to cause another person to feel those emotions. Children with ASD have a difficult time reading those emotions and relating them to themselves. Therefore, it is necessary to put it into terms that they understand. 


How to Help Learn Social Rules

One of the best ways to help children with ASD understand social rules, is to teach them outright. It is not enough to assume that after a few times they will learn to behave differently, they need to be told how to behave. As parents, guardians, and caretakers, it is our responsibility to help guide them and make sure they understand the rules. One way that you can do this in your daily life, is by creating a social rules journal for your child. This way, they will no longer be confused or upset when they don’t understand why they get in trouble. For example, writing “Don’t talk during a test” can lead to some problems. It is too vague, and can cause the child to panic when there pencil breaks and they need a new one. Therefore, you can edit it to say “Don’t talk during a test, unless you need to ask for a pencil” etc. One teacher wrote an article about her experiences with a social rules journal titled “Telling Social Secrets”. 

Another wonderful way we can help children learn social cues, is through ABA therapy. By working with an ABA therapist, you and your child can come up with a plan that works for you and your schedule. Every child is different, so every child, has a different problem or area of life they need to focus on. No matter what level of learning or communication skills your child has, Alliance ABA is here to help. We understand the struggles and challenges that accompany Autism Spectrum Disorder, and we are here to help you get on your feet and succeed. If you think that ABA therapy is right for you please contact Alliance ABA in Fredericksburg, Virginia today!

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