For adults on the autism spectrum, social interaction can be a significant challenge. The increased demands of social life in the adult world, coupled with the non-verbal communication and perspective challenges that come with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), can make aspects of daily interaction overwhelming for adults at any developmental level. Fortunately, there are lots of great activities that can target and strengthen these skills and improve independence and quality of life.
Building Without Words
Every adult with autism is different, but many people have visual and tactile strengths that can be a great foundation for building social skills. In many cases, non-verbal communication gets in the way of daily adult interaction, since gestures and facial expressions can make up a large portion of social communication. This activity uses strong visual and tactile abilities to support growth in non-verbal communication.
To play, adults are grouped into pairs, and each pair is given a stack of goal cards and a pile of building blocks. The challenge is for one partner to explain to the other partner through gestures and non-verbal communication how to build the shape displayed on each card. The team with the most completed shapes is the winner.
This fun activity makes a great social group icebreaker, and it works for both verbal and non-verbal adults.
Role Play - Empathy
The unpredictable nature of social interaction can add to the challenges faced by many adults with ASD. In addition, problems with Theory of Mind and perspective-taking can make it seem like adults on the spectrum lack empathy or an ability to relate emotionally to others. Role play is an excellent way to work on building social-emotional reciprocity while controlling for unexpected variables. Since the interaction is scripted, it provides an interactive example without the stress of a real-world scenario.
This scripted scenario involves offering comfort to a friend who is sad or worried. The script pauses at strategic points to allow for group discussion about important aspects like identifying that someone else is upset, asking questions to offer support, and providing comfort. It's perfect for the group setting.
This activity is best for verbal adults with higher levels of functioning.
Creative Activity and Conversation Guide
Initiating a conversation can be challenging for many adults on the autism spectrum, but it's an important social skill that makes life a little easier. Sharing an activity offers common ground and makes a good springboard for social interaction.
In this activity, participants use a variety of art supplies to create a piece that represents something special to them. It may be a special interest, family member, place, or anything else. Then participants pair off to talk about the artwork. The conversation guide includes suggestions for good questions to ask about the other person's work, as well as topics to avoid in this interaction.
This activity is best suited to verbal adults, but with modifications, it could work for non-verbal adults as well.
More Fun Activities to Build Social Skills
Getting together as a group can be fun, especially if you have a structured activity to help build social skills. Try some of these ideas.
A game night is a great way to get several people together and enjoy a common activity. Have everyone bring a favorite board game or card game and take turns playing different ones. A group leader can facilitate casual conversation during game play. This type of activity is best for verbal adults of varying functioning levels.
To keep things flowing smoothly, make sure everyone agrees on the rules ahead of time. Also clearly state that casual conversation is the objective, so participants don't see it as a distraction from the game itself.
Sometimes, a non-structured activity can be a great icebreaker and a fun way to build social relationships. Swimming, cross-country skiing, biking, and other non-competitive sports can keep things fun and relaxed. This type of activity can be challenging for those who love structure, but with proper support, this can help broaden the range of experiences individuals can share with others.
This is a great opportunity to practice casual conversation, and it's a perfect choice for both verbal and non-verbal adults. To make the activity more structured for those who need it, offer a map of a route you plan to take or a schedule of events.
Taking a class with other people is another great activity that can help build social skills. Ideally, this class will focus on an individual's special interest or some aspect of that interest. Some fun ideas include cooking, art classes, languages, model building, history, and more. The fascinating subject and structured environment will make it easier for the adult with ASD to interact with the group.
If the individual is non-verbal or requires extra support, consider having a helper come along. Over time, the helper can phase out his or her involvement, helping the adult with autism build skills and confidence.
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Make It Fun!
No matter which activity you choose, remember that it needs to be fun. On its own, social interaction may not be inherently reinforcing for the adult with autism, and in some cases, it may even be stressful. If the activity is fun and the group is supportive, it can go a long way toward overcoming this type of emotional obstacle.