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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Social Skills and Kids with Disabilities like ASD or ADHD

Social skills are an important area for daily living and can greatly impact quality of life. Service providers can help parents of youth with ASD, ADHD, and other challenges to learn about and support social skills in their child. The aim is not to change who the child is but to help that child become the best version of themselves they can become – to bring out the potential and to support growth and development of the individual.

One of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (a neurodevelopmental disorder) is “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts…” (DSM-5, 2013). Social skill deficits are also common for individuals with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. 50-60% of children with ADHD are likely to experience rejection from peers due to their social challenges (ADHD; Carpenter Rich, Erika, et. al., 2009). Youth with intellectual disabilities are another population who experience challenges with social skills and who could benefit from working on improving in this area (Adeniyi & Omigbodun, 2016). These are just a few of the examples in the literature about youth who could benefit from social skills training.

Although the three categories below come from the ASD diagnosis description, social skill deficits related to other diagnoses also fit into these categories. For instance, one characteristic of ADHD is “Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly (DSM-5)” which could fall under the first or third categories related to reciprocity or relationships.

Social communication and social interaction deficits include:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

It can be helpful for service providers to assist parents in learning more about their child and how their child currently functions in each of the three social areas and how the child’s particular diagnosis impacts their social skills. If service providers have access to a diagnostic assessment report which evaluated and provided the child with the diagnosis, this report may have additional information that helps to explain the child’s abilities in the area of social skills. Otherwise, service providers can do their own observations, analysis, and interpretation of the child’s skills and functioning in this area.

Social-Emotional Reciprocity

Examples of deficits in social-emotional reciprocity include abnormal social approach toward others, difficulties with conversation, lack of sharing interests, emotions, and/or affect with others, failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

Nonverbal Communicative Behaviors

Examples of nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interactions include things like difficulty coordinating verbal and nonverbal communication, abnormal eye contact, body language difficulties, challenges with gestures, a lack of using facial expressions, and other challenges in the area of nonverbal communication.

Developing, Maintaining, and Understanding Relationships

This aspect of social skills may be a little more straight-forward than the other two areas. An individual with ASD is likely to struggle in some way to develop, maintain, and/or understand relationships. In this skill area, the individual may struggle adjusting their behavior to fit with the context. They may struggle with engaging in imaginative play. They may find it difficult to make or maintain friendships. They may also simply show no or little interest in peers or social relationships.

Research on Social Skills Training

Research supports the effectiveness of social skills training in children with ASD. In one study (Kamps, et. al., 1992), social skills groups were used as the training medium to increase social interactions between students with autism and typically developing peers. The social skills groups addressed the following social skills in the context of the peer to peer interactions: initiating social interactions, responding to social cues, continuing the social interaction, greeting others, increasing the variety of topics of conversation, giving and accepting compliments, taking turns with peers, sharing with peers, asking for help, offering help to others, and including peers in activities. In this study, the social skills training was completed in the first ten minutes of a twenty-minute play group four times per week.

The study by Kamps and colleagues (1992) found that this social skills training intervention resulted in greater frequency of social interactions, increased duration of engagement in social interactions, and improvements in responsivity between peers.

Another example was a study that looked at a social skills group for students with intellectual disability. The students improved significantly in the area of social skills which will ultimately help them in many aspects in life (Adeniyi & Omigbodun, 2016).

One study reported that providing increased reinforcement and reminders of appropriate social behavior at the point of performance to youth with ADHD would help them to improve their social skills. (Mikami, Smit, & Khalis, 2017).

Research on Parent-Assisted Social Skills Intervention

Parents can help with implementing interventions for their children. One study by Laugeson, et. al. (2009), aimed to improve the friendship quality and social skills in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. In the intervention of this study, the social skills that were targeted include conversational skills, developing friendship networks, improving sportsmanship skills, developing host behavior during get-togethers, improving one’s reputation, and responding appropriately to teasing, bullying, and arguments. With this intervention, the youth improved their knowledge and use of social skills and increased the frequency of hosting get-togethers with peers. Based on this study, service providers can help parents to coordinate and support their children to improve specific social skills including hanging out with peers and improving friendships.

Parents can look at what areas their child struggles with regarding social skills and also explore what might benefit the child the most in terms of improving their quality of life in the area of social skills development.

This is an excerpt from the ‘One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum

Social Skills and Kids with Disabilities like ASD or ADHD

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). Social Skills and Kids with Disabilities like ASD or ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from