Strategies and Activities for Teaching Social Communication Skills

** Social communication involves awareness of self and others. Pupils learn social skills through direct teaching by important others within meaningful interactions. For pupils with special needs, a lot of adult time may be required to develop these interactive skills.

The skills of social communication include:

  • joint (shared) attention
  • proximity
  • eye-gaze
  • facial expression
  • body language
  • prosody (volume, speed, tone of voice)
  • turn-taking

** A word of caution!

Dividing social communication into separate skills makes the process easier to map but in real-life the different areas interrelate, supporting the ebb and flow of social interaction. Helping pupils to understand the social meaning of each activity is equally, if not more, important than prompting pupils to use the skills. It will not be enough to simply teach the what - pupils will also need to understand the how, where and why of social communication, demonstrated within contexts
that are meaningful to them.

** Joint (shared) attention

‘I like my own agenda!’

Learning to share attention, wait, and take turns are important skills for developing interaction, from the give and take of early social play (lap games) to shared conversation. Joint attention is one of the single most difficult skills for many pupils with autism or social communication needs to master. Basic advice is set out below. Please refer to Attention and Listening section for more specific guidance.

  • Reduce the clutter. Have on view only what you want to work with.
  • Use visual means to help the pupil focus.
  • Start from where the pupil is at - join his focus of attention.
  • Keep body movements, facial expression, gesture and language to a minimum.
  • Use the pupil’s name first to attract his attention before you speak.
  • Speak slowly, using a calm, quiet voice an long pauses.
  • Keep social praise (e.g. Good singing!) until the pupil has completed the task. Praise part way through may distract.
  • Give the pupil extra time to process (to think, understand and respond).
  • Use Intensive Interaction strategies (See Appendix 1).

** Proximity (personal space)

‘Respect my space!’

Pupils with social communication difficulties may feel very uncomfortable when others are within their personal space.

  • Be aware of the pupil’s tolerance of the proximity of others - stay outside their personal space. For staff and pupils: if unsure, maintain an arm’s length distance.
  • Sensory issues matter here. Find out if the pupil is sensitive to bright colours, light, sound, smells, touch, movement. If so, you will need to accommodate these sensory differences in order to work alongside the pupil.
  • Discuss who it is/isn’t appropriate to: say hello to, shake hands with, kiss, cuddle, hold hands with etc. Teach socially acceptable alternatives. Gently redirect over-familiar behaviour e.g. prompt to shake hands instead of hugging as a greeting.

** Eye gaze

‘I will look at you when I feel secure and confident!’

Good timing of eye contact is important for social interaction and communication.

  • The pupil needs to learn when, why and for how long to look at others.
  • Encouraging the pupil to look towards rather than at others’ faces may be more comfortable. For some pupils, just turning towards others is enough.
  • Holding objects at eye-level may encourage a pupil to look at you.
  • Or prompting with a ‘Look’ symbol or gesture.
  • Make sure you are at the right level for the pupil to make eye-contact - ‘get your face in the right place!’ (Dave Hewitt, Intensive Interaction).
  • If appropriate, acknowledge the pupil’s attempts at eye-gaze when listening or speaking e.g. ‘Thank you for looking at me.’
  • Generally, the more confident the pupil the better the eye-gaze. Encourage but never force eye-gaze.

** Facial expression:

Facial expressions, beyond the basics of happy, sad and cross, can be difficult to ‘read’, especially for pupils with social-communication difficulties. Our faces show different degrees of emotion, as well as different feelings, so facial expressions can be misunderstood. We give mixed messages - what we say may not
be what we mean, for example, saying ‘no’ whilst smiling. Our intended meaning is usually conveyed through a combination of facial expression, body language and tone of voice. Social skills programmes, like the Social Use of Language Programme and Socially Speaking contain a range of teaching activities.

Some ideas to consider:

  • Use a mirror so the pupil can see how their face looks when they experience different emotions.
  • Use ‘mood music’ to experience different feelings.
  • Take photos of facial expressions and of the contexts. Match the photos to different feelings and to possible reasons for feeling this way.
  • Use symbols of facial expressions. Encourage the pupil to observe others and match the symbols to others’ feelings and to reasons why they feel that way.
  • Introduce a mood chart, using photos or symbols, to indicate how pupils feel about different activities or events.
  • Make a feelings thermometer with a movable gauge (blue at bottom for very calm, colour graded through green, yellow and orange to red at top for very cross). This provides a visual way of representing how the pupil is feeling and how feelings change throughout the day. It also helps pupils recognise when they need calm time.
  • Use a story or DVD clip or scenes from TV soaps. Encourage pupils to identify the feelings of characters from their facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. Again, explore the link between social behaviour and feelings.
  • Use drama to act out feelings linked to situations and their emotional consequences.
  • Use role-play to explain mixed messages - words say one thing but body language and tone of voice say another.

** Body language:

  • Teach social gestures, including: head nod (yes); head shake (no); handshake (hello); wave (bye); finger-point (requesting and responding); thumb up (like or good); thumb down (don’t like or not good); standing alongside (to gain attention) hand up (to speak in class); raised palm (stop/wait); shrug (don’t know).
  • Teach body language for being a ‘good listener’ see Appendix 7
  • Use visual cues such as signs or symbol cards to prompt appropriate body language and social gestures
  • Use real contexts and video clips to explain the meaning of body language, linked to facial expression and tone of voice
  • Use symbol book or chart to show who, where (on the body) and when it is appropriate to touch. Gently redirect over-familiar behaviour (see proximity). Prosody - volume, speed, intonation, emphasis

** Prosody - volume, speed, intonation, emphasis


  • Visual prompt cards e.g. Quiet voice please!
  • Use visual and/or auditory representations of quiet (mouse; rustling tissue) and loud (lion; drum)
  • Demonstrate different volumes in different situations - pupils consider appropriacy.
  • Link concepts of quiet and loud to characters in stories e.g. bully = loud. Use drama.
  • Use visual feedback systems to indicate whether volume is acceptable e.g. lights which are sensitive to sound levels and indicate when the noise level is too high, or a low-tech version using coloured card (red, amber, green) or an up/down gesture for volume control.


  • Use a video or tape recorder to provide feedback as to whether the speed of the pupil’s speech is too fast / too slow / acceptable.
  • Use a gesture or symbol card e.g. to remind the pupil to speak more slowly.


  • Work on turn taking as a one-to-one activity to start with.
  • Develop the concept of turn-taking through structured games and activities with clearly marked turns.
  • For those in the early stages of social interaction, use the Pause-Burst strategy as described by Potter & Whittaker (2001) (see references) e.g. pause during and at the end of action rhymes. Wait for the pupil to indicate more e.g. by taking your hand or looking at you before continuing.
  • Use visual prompts to indicate whose turn, e.g. photos; written names to move up a Velcro strip or check off a list; a ‘My turn’ symbol card; a microphone to signal whose turn to speak.
  • Indicate whose turn it is by saying ‘Tom’s turn’ and looking at Tom. Use simple specific language.
  • Use a spinner with photos/names of pupils on it. When the arrow stops it is that pupil’s turn.
  • Use a visual cue to indicate when a turn starts, how long it lasts and when it ends, for example a sand timer.

** Some specifics you might notice:

  • A disproportionate number of object labels (nouns e.g. dog, TV, face) may be used because these are the most concrete and static. Examples include: labelling (naming) objects or pictures to self, reciting lists, repeating others’ words, saying a word over and over but without actually communicating anything to anyone.
  • Words learnt through chunking e.g. “Kick the ball” used for “ball”. Vocabulary is bound by the context in which is it learnt and is cued by routine and prompts.
  • Echolalia, that is, imitation of others’ speech. The pupil’s ‘echo’ may be immediately after hearing someone or may be delayed by minutes, hours, days or even longer. So what the pupil says may or may not relate to the context. The echo may be one word (e.g. Stop!) or a phrase (e.g. Would you like a drink?) or a recalled chunk, for example, on hearing ‘Hello!’ the pupil may respond: “Hello Thomas! said the engine driver.” Echoed words are often clearer than the pupil’s own speech. The most common reasons for echolalia are difficulty understanding what is said and/or difficulty generating own words and phrases.
  • Concepts (position, colour, number, size, shape, time) are often difficult to learn because they are not absolute referents but describe relationships between objects and events (e.g. Red car. Red-faced. Red-letter day. Funny walk. Funny idea. In the air. In your bag. In a minute.). So
  • Relational terms are often confusing because their meaning changes depending on whether our perspective is that of speaker or listener. Examples are: I/you; this/that; here/there; come/go; behind/in front. The phrase “I need you to go behind there” would be particularly difficult to understand because there are five relational terms within just seven words!
  • Generalisation problems occur because of difficulty with flexible thinking and also because of the visual learning style of many of the pupils. What is learnt is bound to the context in which it was learnt, so, for example, a pupil may only understand the word ‘cup’ to mean his own special Thomas beaker. Offering him a different cup may trigger a negative reaction. His vocabulary is contextbound not ideas-linked.
  • Literal understanding/use of words frequently causes misunderstanding. Polite requests are genuinely mistaken for questions or choices e.g. “Can you pick up your pencil!” Yes! “Would you like to sit here.” No! There is difficulty appreciating literature and humour. Implied meanings (e.g. hints, jokes, sarcasm) are usually missed or taken literally, causing confusion. Sayings are particularly perplexing and sometimes frightening because the language is taken literally (e.g. Hop it! You’re full of beans today! You’ll have to pull your socks up! He laughed his head off!). Similes (comparing 2 different things) and riddles (more literal than jokes) may be easier to understand.
  • Repetitive questions. These may occur for a variety of reasons including: not understanding the situation or the answer; wanting a conversation but not knowing how to chat to another person; seeking reassurance from a familiar or repetitive answer; needing to check the schedule of events.

** Strategies that may help:

  • Use visual means to support the pupil’s understanding, for example, objects, real-life activities, photos, DVDs, pictures, symbols, diagrams, written words.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say! Speak plainly, avoiding sarcasm, implied meanings and sayings.
  • Keep directions simple and make time specific e.g. “First lunch then swimming” rather than “We’re going swimming later.”
  • When teaching concepts, work on one concept at a time and avoid comparisons. For example, when teaching the colour ‘red’, refer to objects as either ‘red’ or ‘not red’. Teach the meaning of ‘red’ by exploring lots of different objects that are red or ‘not red’. Do the same for size concepts e.g. ‘big/not big’ or ‘small/not small’. When each concept is secure, then begin to make comparisons e.g. red v blue or big v small.
  • Vocabulary rehearsal - check out the pupil’s knowledge of key vocabulary before that topic is introduced in lessons. Teach unfamiliar concepts and words ahead of the lesson. Make a scrap-book or personal dictionary.
  • Visual ways to teach vocabulary include:
    • Multi-sensory learning, using all the senses to explore the sight/sound/touch/smell/taste of a concept, so building up a mental picture of its meaning.
    • Object or picture schedules, sand-timers, calendars and clocks to make the sequence of events and time visual.
    • Vocabulary mapping e.g. Topic webs / Spidergrammes / Word-maps
    • Multiple meaning activities, using objects or pictures (e.g. ‘glasses’: for seeing or for drinking?)
    • Barrier games (guess the name of an object from its description)
    • Sorting and categorising activities using objects or pictures e.g. same/different, things that go together, odd one out, Venn diagrams.
    • Mind-maps, using pictures and colour-coding
  • Include targets for generalisation of vocabulary as well as for learning the actual words. For example a pupil may need to be taught that the word cup refers to different cups, not just his own particular beaker. Or that an instruction (e.g. Coat on!) means the same in different situations - in the classroom, on the
    playground, in the taxi, at home, at grandma’s.
  • Word-games
  • Humour is an important friendship skill. For pupils at this stage of development, use illustrations to teach the meaning of riddles, jokes and sayings. There are several commercial resource books available. Or the pupils may enjoy illustrating the literal and non-literal (true) meanings themselves. Be sure to cover ‘in-jokes’ and expressions used by peers.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat! Many many times for new words.

** This is used throughout the document and refers to puplis with autism

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Last updated: 28 October 2015

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