How to Develop Social Skills in Non-Verbal Autistic Children

By Michelle McFarland-McDaniels
Even non-verbal autistic children can develop effective social skills.
Even non-verbal autistic children can develop effective social skills.

Autism is characterized by varying degrees of impairment in both communication skills and social interaction. Nonverbal autistic children can be especially difficult to reach. Some are outright resistant to interacting with others. For these reasons, helping nonverbal autistic children to develop social skills is especially challenging. Yet it is absolutely crucial that they learn how to effectively navigate the social landscape in order to succeed in school, at work and in society. Fortunately, with determination and persistence, it can be done.

Create Interest

Attempts to force autistic children to engage in social behavior will be unsuccessful at best and disastrous at worst. Therefore, it is essential to gently entice or coax them to interact socially by creating incentives for them to do so. One way to to this is to use a preferred activity or object as a reward. If you make it clear to the child that he cannot have what he wants unless he participates in the specified behavior, he will be motivated to do as you request, and he will learn a social skill -- reciprocity -- in the process.

Lay the Foundation

Prepare to help your child acquire social skills. Identify social skills that are age appropriate and functional for your child. Seize teachable moments by pointing out examples of social behaviors for your child. For example, if you see children playing together, say "Those children look like they're having a great time playing together." Praise your child when he exhibits social behaviors. For instance, if he looks at you when you speak to him, say "Awesome job making eye contact!"

Teach Explicitly

Use a direct approach to teach your autistic child social skills. Choose a skill to work on. Talk about the skill and why it is important, in language your child can understand. Use visual aids and hands-on activities as much as possible. If your child responds positively to computers or videos, find ways to incorporate them. Model the skill. Identify the skill as you are modeling it and explain each step in the process. Help your child to practice the skill. As she becomes more proficient, allow her to practice the skill independently. Praise your child for her efforts. Review the skill until it becomes ingrained.

Facilitate Communication

Since your child is autistic and nonverbal, it is extremely important that you find ways for him to communicate. This will enable him to improve his social skills and, eventually, initiate social interactions. There are a number of methods that tend to work well with nonverbal and minimally verbal children with autism, including sign language, gesturing, augmentative communication devices and specialized apps for tablet computers.

Provide Opportunities

Once your child has had an opportunity to learn some social skills, she needs to put them to use. Take her to places where she can interact with both typically developing peers as well as those who have autism and other challenges. Start slowly by enrolling her in a structured play group and setting up play dates with other children whose parents are supportive and understanding. After she becomes more socially proficient, sign her up for activities that naturally lend themselves to social interaction, such as drama and team sports.

About the Author

Michelle McFarland-McDaniels has been writing professionally since 1983. She has written for a variety of online publications including and, as well as "College Outlook" and "San Diego Family" magazines. McFarland-McDaniels holds master's degrees in African-American literature and education.