Home | Resources | Helping children on the autism spectrum understand social cues
Social cues are the pieces of information we subconsciously know without ever being explicitly taught them. These pieces of information are usually the unwritten rules or customs, the nuances of social communications or the assumptions and expectations we’re aware of within different contexts. Social cues and codes are learnt from an early age through observation of repeated behaviours within different environments, with particular people, within certain cultures or at specific locations. Understanding these cues allows us to easily navigate social interactions, daily life tasks, and communication within school, work or the community.
Helping children on the autism spectrum understand social cues is important from a young age, and crucial throughout their school years. For some children, reading subtle social cues can be challenging as it relies on an understanding of tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often interpret communication literally, so inferred behaviours can go unnoticed. This can lead to their actions being misinterpreted as rude, inappropriate or defiant. Understanding social cues can be made even more confusing as the rules often change with age, who you are with and where you are.
Consider this example:
A family might consider it the ‘norm’ to rest your feet on the coffee table while watching TV at home. Others in the family would know that you wouldn’t repeat that behaviour by putting your feet up on the desk at school if watching a video in class, however the different behaviours expected in this setting may be difficult for a child on the autism spectrum to recognise because the table is a constant in each scenario. Therefore, they do not recognise the need to adjust their behaviour, which can result in them acting in a way that is considered rude. It is important to recognise that children with on the spectrum do not intend to be defiant in their behaviour – they simply have not been explicitly taught the social cues to identify the behaviour expected of them in that context. They thrive with repetition and routine, so clear and consistent reinforcement of expected behaviours is crucial in helping them understand social cues.
Some more common social cues that teachers can be helping children on the autism spectrum understand in the school environment may include:
Social cues exist in all parts of our lives and can vary greatly between environments, people and cultures. It is difficult to teach every one of these social cues, so the best and most effective tool is to teach students on the autism spectrum life-long skills and strategies to be able to uncover social rules for themselves. Some of these strategies include:
If you work with children on the autism spectrum, teaching them social cues is an important subject and life skill that will help them to build confidence, feel included and gain independence. They will face daunting and complex social situations throughout their life, so empowering them with the tools to understand and decode social cues for themselves is vital.
Where to go for more help:
Autism Association of Western Australia: App Reviews
Yes She Can: The Hidden Curriculum by Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D.
Autism Parenting Magazine: Best Autism Apps