Assessment, Engagement, Teaching

Learning People Skills

Social literacy for students with autism spectrum disorders

When we think about the idea of social literacy, what comes to mind? Thinking specifically about what is happening in schools, social literacy can be thought of as good citizenship, character development, communication skills, interaction skills, and more. Its development is necessary in the growth of the whole child – beyond the academics – and has an impact on how students can learn and do well, in school and in the world.

Now let’s think of that one child who sits on the side of the school playground, alone, while the others in Grade 3 engage in an enthusiastic debate about the rules of the game they have just invented. The “rules” seem foreign to this student and despite trying, the student does not understand the game, what to say, or what to do. For students who have trouble with social skills, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), engaging in such activities with same-aged peers is difficult. Their social skills may not develop naturally just by watching others and, instead, individualized teaching is often needed.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Canadian context

Awareness of ASD has come into the public eye in the last 20 years, attracting attention due to its seemingly rapid growth rate in North America. In the U.S. alone, about one in 88 children are diagnosed with ASD. This is an increase of 78 percent in the last five years, and current research indicates that the numbers are similar in Canada.[1]

Research has demonstrated that social responsibility and personal independence are both important predictors of long-term success for children with ASD, the same as for any other student.[2] But because children with ASD do have built-in difficulties in social skills, ignoring this area of instruction can leave them with a great disadvantage over time. Ideally, social skills teaching should be assessment-based, individualized, and intensive.[3] Even better: social skills teaching should happen in the inclusive classroom for authentic practice with their peers. For example, an adult might teach a child to say, “Hello. My name is Kaleb.” But the truth of the matter is that children rarely use these formal greetings, and might say, “Whuzzup?” or just glance at one another and share a smile. Which is the more “real” social skill? Teaching children to offer a formal greeting may, in fact, isolate them more from their peers.

Depending on the practices and policies in each province or territory, a need for social skills will often be discussed in the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC), and/or recorded on a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). The school team supporting that student works together to develop goals, objectives, and strategies to meet these needs. Finding a starting place, though, is often difficult. We may know that Jasmine has trouble with social skills. But her teacher might wonder what kind of social teaching and learning is most important. Does she know how to enter a play situation? Does she know what it means when someone rolls their eyes at her? Knowing exactly which social skill to target first can be a challenge, and finding the next developmental social skill can be equally difficult!

Social literacy & assessment tools

Using assessment helps us not only with teaching academics in classrooms, but also with knowing what social skills to teach in the school, the home, and the community. Teachers are aware of the importance of using assessment for indi­vidual planning when writing IEPs for students with exceptional needs. However, they may be unfamiliar with the tools available to develop social literacy goals. There are a number of social skills assessment tools available, ranging in price from quite inexpensive to more costly. Although many of these books and manuals may refer specifically to ASD, it is important to remember that these assessment tools are often helpful for students who just struggle socially and may not have a diagnosis or a “label.” 

Building Social Relationships,[4] by Scott Bellini, is a complete look at social skills for ages six to 17. It is usually used as a planning tool and also to track the development of new skills. Built into this book is the Autism Social Skills Profile, which can be completed by educators or parents. It includes 49 questions that parents or teachers are asked to rate on a scale of one to four, and it can be completed quite quickly, usually in ten to 20 minutes. It is easily available through online booksellers for approximately $30.

A second potential assessment choice is Social Skills Solutions,[5] by McKinnon and Krempa. This is also easily accessible online for about $20. It is organized by the use of three checklists: one for each of three developmental levels, which become more detailed and complex. Level 1 assesses basic responding skills, Level 2 examines the “when” and “why” of social responses, and Level 3 looks at the generalization of social skills. Three different settings are also examined, assessing the student’s ability to demonstrate the skill in a one-on-one situation, a group setting, or a natural, inclusive setting. Users can begin by scanning to find a starting spot which appears to be at the student’s level, and begin ranking the student, adjusting the levels as appropriate.

From assessment to social literacy support

Social skill assessments, like the ones above, provide two major ways to help build programs for social literacy. First, they provide a social skill baseline for an individual child or adolescent. Second, they will help to formulate the next steps towards social literacy. Often the skills the student has not acquired, as identified in the assessment, will be the teaching focus to meet individual needs. Each of these next steps can be recorded as an individual course in social skills for an IEP, keeping in mind that most of these alternative-type courses focus on three to five expectations for what can realistically be accomplished in one term of instruction.

Let’s say that based on a social skills assessment, we now know that Tony needs to start with learning to stop when his peer says, “Stop.” But how do we write this down into a plan on Tony’s IEP so that we can later see if his skills have changed?

One way to write effective goals is to use a SMART acronym. The SMART acronym may differ slightly from source to source, but typically S is specific, M is measurable, A is attainable, R is reasonable, and T is time-limited, that is, with an identified time-frame.[6] SMART goals make objectives easier to measure when it comes to updating the IEP.

Examples of SMART goals that work towards social literacy for an individual student, based on the results of a social skills assessment, might be:

  • Noah will accept losing a game 50 percent of the time by saying socially acceptable phrases like “Nice game,” or “Good job,” when he plays board games with his peers in the school environment in the first term of school.
  • Caitlin will respond to another student when she is greeted by him or her during a class-wide activity in 80 percent of instances during the first term of Grade 5.
  • When approaching a peer to interact during centre time, Jamie will get the attention of this classmate (e.g. “Excuse me,” “Hey,” or tap on the shoulder) before starting the conversation at least 80 percent of the time.

Social literacy and teaching tools

Beyond developing appropriate SMART goals, it is often helpful to have lists which provide parents and teachers with the types of social literacy that are commonly expected of children. For example, these may include knowing how to initiate or maintain a conversation or how to show an interest in what is being said by another person. Further examples can be accessed through the Assessing Achievement in Alternate Areas: A Place for Ideas, Resources, and Sharing site, found online at www.thea4ideaplace.com/social-skills-overview. This site also provides informal assessment tools related not only to social skills, but to other areas of the alternative curriculum, such as community skills, personal care, and more.

Many social skills teaching opportunities can be incorporated into pre-existing activities in the classroom with peers.

There are many activities and resources available to teachers and parents to develop social literacy. For example, listening activities can include playing games such as “Simon Says” or “I Spy.” Communication activities such as “Twenty Questions,” in which children develop 20 questions (or less, depending on the child’s interest and ability) to identify a hidden object in a classroom, are helpful for learning appropriate turn-taking and question development. Board games can develop cooperation skills and generalized commenting, a skill that is often difficult for individuals with ASD. Making cards for sick classmates or teachers can help with developing social empathy. Having a “Give Me a Break” card, which can be used by a student to have a break in an activity, can support emotional development. Many more ideas are easily accessible for teachers at resource-sharing sites.

Many social skills teaching opportunities can be incorporated into pre-existing activities in the classroom with peers. Opportunities for naturally-occurring social interaction can be built in while lining up or working in groups, during physical education, at recess, when eating lunch, and more. Consider introducing a peer-mediated program: using other students as “social experts” in the classroom by teaching them effective strategies to interact, model, and provide age-appropriate coaching towards students with ASD. For example, when your student doesn’t respond to the bell, you can ask a peer to remind the student to get his or her lunch bag. This is called prompting a peer to demonstrate what the student needs to do. This prompting could also include specific social interaction skills. For example, during a conversation, ask a peer to prompt your student with social difficulties to share, when asked, what he did last night after school. An overview and resources for this approach can be found at: www.asatonline.org/treatment/procedures/peer.

Children with an ASD, just like other students, need to develop social literacy. Finding and using a published assessment tool for social skills development is an essential first step in developing an individualized program to develop social literacy. While this assessment helps to formalize the baseline of current functioning for an individual student and the next steps of that student’s social development, further information-gathering must be done to find resources and strategies for effective social skills instruction. These include developing SMART goals, being aware of social skill competencies, and accessing resources available to teach these skills. The development of social literacy is essential in the growth and development of the whole person, underlying future and continued student learning and achievement for all.

First published in Education Canada, March 2013


Parents and teachers may find the following resources helpful:

Autism Support Network


Assessing Achievement in Alternate Areas


Canadian Autism Intervention Research Network


Geneva Centre for Autism


Offord Centre for Child Studies


Social Literacy Today (blog)


EN BREF – La responsabilité sociale et l’autonomie personnelle sont des priorités en matière d’éducation pour les enfants atteints de troubles du spectre autistique (TSA). Comme les élèves autistes manifestent des difficultés marquées sur le plan des relations interpersonnelles et requièrent souvent l’enseignement direct de comportements sociaux appropriés, les programmes de développement d’aptitudes sociales se multiplient dans les milieux éducatifs. L’acquisition de la littératie sociale est essentielle à une croissance et à un développement menant à l’apprentissage et à la réussite des élèves. Cet article souligne l’importance de la littératie sociale et examine différents outils d’évaluation destinés aux élèves manifestant des difficultés d’ordre social. L’article présente des stratégies, des ressources et des exemples utiles pour développer la littératie sociale.

[1] Centers for Disease Control. “Why are Autism Spectrum Disorders Increasing?” (April 16, 2012), www.cdc.gov/features/autismprevalence

[2] Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council, Educating Children with Autism (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001).

[3] S. Bellini, J. K. Peters, L. Benner & A. Hopf, “A Meta-analysis of School-based Social Skills Interventions for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Remedial and Special Education 28 (2007): 153-162.

 [4] S. Bellini, Building Social Relationships: A systematic approach to teaching social interaction skills to children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other social difficulties (Overland Park, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2006).

 [5] K. McKinnon and J. L. Krempa, Social Skills Solutions: A hands-on manual for teaching social skills to children with autism (New York: DRL Books, 2002).

[6] L. Jung, “Writing SMART Objectives and Strategies that Fit the ROUTINE,” Teaching Exceptional Children 39 no. 4 (2007): 54-58.

Meet the Expert(s)

steve sider

Steve Sider

Dr. Steve Sider is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He is currently leading a research project on the practices of school principals in supporting inclusive schools.

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Kimberly Maich

Dr. Kimberly Maich

Associate Professor, Memorial University

Dr. Kimberly Maich is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL. As an Ontario Certified Teacher and a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst, she enjoys researching and teaching in various areas of special education, including ASD, behaviour, and assistive technology.

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Carmen Hall

Carmen Hall, MC, CCC is the Coordinator and Professor in the Autism and Behavioural Science Program at Fanshawe College, London, Ont. Her research and consulting activities have focused on enhancing social skills programming for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders in inclusive settings.

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