Developing social skills is not always automatic
Social skills are the rules, customs, and abilities that guide our interactions with other people and the world around us. In general, people tend to “pick up” social skills in the same way they learn language skills: naturally and easily. Over time they build a social “map” of how to act in situations and with others.

Sometimes, for people who have disabilities, it can be harder to learn and build up these skills, forcing them to guess what the social "map" should look like. 

Social skills development may involve:
  • Direct or explicit instruction and "teachable moments" with practice in realistic settings
  • Focus on timing and attention
  • Support for enhancing communication and sensory integration
  • Learning behaviors that predict important social outcomes like friendship and happiness
  • A way to build up cognitive and language skills
How to teach social skills
The importance of social capital
Dr. Al Condeluci defines “social capital” as the value that relationships bring to our lives. In his books, university lectures, consultations, and in nation-wide presentations, Dr. Condeluci describes how people who have disabilities often have less social capital, and how damaging that can be. Research shows that health, happiness, jobs, advancement in work, and longevity are all tied to social capital.

Parents, educators, and health care providers focus on providing support to meet important developmental and educational goals. But one crucial area that is often overlooked is social engagement, the need for friends and connectedness. 

Dr. Condeluci outlines four steps to building social capital:

1. Find what your child has in common with others
That could be any interest or activity: reading, golf, computers, music, dance, nature walks, drawing, movies, or video games, etc.

2. Find a matching community venue that meets on a regular basis
Is there a club or group in the community focused on this activity? It might be a book club, drumming circle, gardening club, or hiking group.

3. Understand how the group or club works
What is expected of people in this group? How do the members behave? What jargon do they use? Share this information with your child as it relates to them.

4. Find a “gatekeeper”
A gatekeeper is a person already in the group who can introduce a new person to the group. Maybe a neighbor or co-worker pitches for a community softball team. They could be a gatekeeper for your daughter who wants to play softball. Everyone in the group knows the gatekeeper and will readily accept the new member if the gatekeeper brings the person in.

Social opportunities
Need some ideas on where your child may socialize? Here are just a few opportunities in which people can practice their social skills, meet new people, and develop friendships. 
  • Structured social groups at school or in the community
  • Extracurricular activities at school
  • Church volunteer groups for youth or adults
  • Scouts
  • Work parties or service initiatives
  • Disability-specific groups such as Gigi’s Playhouse which offers learning and social programming for people with Down syndrome
  • Cultural destinations such as museums, galleries, or concerts and classes or tours often coordinated by them
  • Community recreation, exercise, or academic classes or groups

Does your school-aged child need assistance in participating in school activities or community outings? Are you, as a parent, the one who usually accompanies your child? Instead, try Starbridge’s TIES program which provides one-on-one peer companions who can help bridge the gap to communication during social events. Also, if your child self-directs their services, self-directed budgets can support social skills development programs and community activities that may naturally support the development of relationships.
Self-advocate's perspective
The skills that were most important for me to grow didn’t come from a textbook or a classroom; they came through developing what professionals today refer to as “soft skills” or social skills.

I have seen firsthand the importance of teaching self-awareness and social communication to students. Youngsters and teenagers without disabilities learn these skills through peer interaction and social opportunities. Skills such as making and keeping friends, being a good listener, being a team player, and being assertive rather than aggressive are what contribute to future success as an adult.

Excerpt from Social Skills are Critical for Those with Disabilities , By Sandra Houghton 
Additional Resources