Social skills include the ability to make friends, feel comfortable with a wide variety of different types of people and situations, and interact smoothly in social situations.
Social skills are like any other individual trait. Just like some people are tall and some people are short, some people have great social skills and some people don’t. The social skills of every person have been determined at birth in large part, just like height. (Manners, on the other hand, are culture-specific, and are learned behaviors).
When persons with good social skills enter a room full of other people, they know intuitively what to do and it feels natural to them. They love being around other people and find it stimulating.
When persons with poor social skills enter a room full of other people, they have to work very hard to figure out everything they do or say. Every sentence spoken to them takes extra processing time to figure out what it implied and how they are supposed to respond. Nearly every smile, frown, raised eyebrow, and voice inflection have to be de-coded and processed to determine how to respond. They find it exhausting to be around other people.
How is it Diagnosed/Measured?
A professional will ask questions about social interaction behaviors:
- Does your child have friends?
- Do they get singled out at school for being different?
- Do they get left out of most group activities?
- Is your child interested in having friends or does he/she not really care?
- Is your child more interested in solitary activities (computer, Legos, reading) than friends?
- Does your child seem a bit lost in group situations?
Social skills exist on a wide spectrum across the population. At the most severe end of the spectrum are individuals with autistic disorder who will show additional problems in language development and stereotyped behaviors.
Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, a subset of autism, have moderate difficulties in social interaction, but have relatively intact language and cognitive skills.
At the mild end of the spectrum are many individuals who do not qualify for a disorder but find routine social interactions a struggle every day.
Diagnoses of mild autism spectrum disorder are often missed in all age groups for a variety of reasons. First, in very young children, social skills are still developing, so the signs can be subtle if one does not know what to look for. Second, these diagnoses are scary to parents because they are life-long. There is often reluctance on the part of parents to agree with the diagnosis initially. Third, there is relatively little public awareness about mild to moderate social skills problems in children. Most people are aware of ADHD, depression, and anxiety, but they have little frame of reference for knowing what social skills problems are. Fourth, people with mild to moderate problems with social skills function fairly well in life, so it can seem counter-intuitive to talk about social skills problems as a clinical problem. Most psychiatry, psychology, social work, and other training programs do not adequately teach about the wide range and subtleties of these problems.
Standardized checklists can be very helpful to get a more thorough and unbiased view of the problems:
For children with high-functioning forms of autism, what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome, the Sohn Grayson checklist is helpful (download below). Scoring guidelines are:
- 58-89 Very Low
- 90-118 Low
- 119-149 Mild to Moderate
- 150-177 Moderate to High
- 178-207 High to Very High
- 208-232 Very High
Another checklist of Asperger symptoms can be printed from a link on this site http://autism.lovetoknow.com/Aspergers_Checklist
For more severe autistic disorder, see the autism fact sheet.
When to Refer/Seek Help
Most children with mild to moderate problems can function pretty well in a family situation where there are not that many social interaction demands. So when social problems become apparent with children, the initial reactions of most parents is to suspect that there is something wrong with the other children or the schools. If the problem is causing consistent distress to children or getting in the way of the children participating in activities that are necessary for school or routine life, it is probably time to seek help.
For higher functioning individuals, social skills can be taught. There are many types of good social skills interventions. There are board games, card games, picture books, and other types of structured activities that can be used to teach social skills in therapy sessions. Group therapy can also be useful because it provides opportunities to interact with peers.
Getting the right diagnosis and treatment can often be a journey over many years.
For individuals with more severe deficits in communication skills, see the fact sheet on autism.
To find local providers, click on "Find a Provider" at the top of this page. Then click in the "Issues" box and select "Social Skills," then click Search. You can also refine your search by type of insurance and location.
Tony Attwood, PhD is an English psychologist who lives in Australia who has written one of the best books for parents about Asperger’s. His website is http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/
Parenting support groups in Louisiana can sometimes be found at http://www.parentingaspergerscommunity.com/public/500.cfm
Many Asperger resources can be found at autism websites.
- Updated July 10, 2019