Teaching Social Cues to Students with Autism

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Children with autism have an especially hard time interacting with their peers because of their inability to communicate appropriately. This lesson explores some tactics that can be helpful in teaching social cues to students with autism in a traditional classroom.


According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), autism is defined as ''a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction.''

While students with autism might have similarities, no two cases are alike. Each student's abilities and challenges are singularly unique. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that cases range from high-functioning to severe. Someone who is characterized as high-functioning may be academically on track but lack social skills. A student who struggles with severe autism may be nonverbal, unable to interact with people in any way, and completely dependent on someone to survive.

The autism spectrum includes these extreme cases and everything in between. This is what makes working with students with autism a challenge. Characteristics, symptoms, and effective intervention look different with each person. It is important to recognize that progress in social communication can be slow and some people with autism never grasp social cues.

One thing that most students with autism have in common is difficulty with social interaction. Unlike their peers, children with autism do not naturally acquire a sense of what is socially appropriate.

Social Cues

Let's look at the example of Kenny, a seventh grader on the autism spectrum. Teachers have often observed that Kenny experiences the following challenges:

  • Lack of eye contact - Other kids often interpret his lack of eye contact as a lack of interest, which makes it difficult to maintain a conversation.
  • No conversational give and take - A typical conversation includes one person talking and the other listening. When the talking stops, the listener responds with something pertinent to what was said. Kenny often talks about a subject that interests him and does not give his peers a chance to respond.
  • Difficulty reading facial expressions - Kenny does not notice or interpret facial expressions. For instance, when a peer is crying or looks unhappy, he cannot respond appropriately.

These challenges make it difficult for Kenny to interact with his peers. Kenny's teachers are ready to help him learn the skills he needs to participate with his peers and, with permission from and in cooperation with his parents, they begin teaching him social cues.

Kenny's teachers will focus on the three areas in which Kenny struggles the most: making eye contact, conversational give and take, and reading facial expressions. Research supports the following instructional strategies that they use to help him develop these skills.

Keep in mind that these strategies may be taught, practiced, and tracked for many months before teachers see significant progress. If a child does not improve, other techniques should be researched and implemented.

Eye Contact

Kenny's teachers will practice making eye contact with him throughout the day. Every time he and his teacher make eye contact, he is given positive reinforcement in the form of praise. This increases the likelihood that Kenny will make eye contact more often until eventually, it becomes more natural for him to do so.

Some students will not respond to verbal praise. A simple ''Good job'' or 'Thank you for looking me in the eye'' will not be motivating enough to increase the likelihood of them making eye contact again and again. If this is the case and with parent permission, try other forms of reward such as stickers, breaks, snacks, or time to play on the computer.

Give and Take

Kenny's teachers will use task analysis to help Kenny learn the steps of give and take. In task analysis, they will break down the skill into small, simple steps and help Kenny practice one step at a time. For instance, Kenny's teacher might give him the following steps:

  • Walk over to a peer
  • Stand arms length away from them
  • Say their name
  • Make eye contact
  • Ask them a question
  • Wait for a response
  • Reply with a statement about what they said

The detail in which you write and practice these steps will depend on the student you are teaching and their strengths.

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