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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

Is My Child Ready to Learn Social Skills? Here’s How to Find Out

Noah stood on the edge of the neighborhood park, clutching his favorite toy car tightly. The other children ran around, laughing and playing games he didn’t understand. The noise was too loud, and the movement too fast. It made his head feel all jumbled.


Child playing alone with cars

Every afternoon, Noah and his mother came to the park. While she sat on a bench, reading a book, Noah found a quiet spot near the sandbox, arranging his toy cars in a perfect line. A neighbor, Mrs. Martinez, noticed him sitting alone and approached gently.


"Those are great cars, Noah," she said softly. "Do you think the other kids might like to see them?"


Noah shook his head vigorously, clutching his cars tighter. Mrs. Martinez nodded understandingly and walked away.


The next day, Noah’s mother brought a small blanket for him to sit on, giving him a sense of security in his familiar routine. He arranged his cars meticulously, feeling the comfort of their order.


A little girl named Lily wandered over. "Can I play too?" she asked, her eyes wide with curiosity.

Noah's eyes widened in panic, and he shook his head again. Lily stood there for a moment, then sat a little distance away, watching quietly. She began to draw shapes in the sand, glancing at Noah occasionally.


Noah's mother walked over and knelt beside him. "It's okay, Noah," she said softly. "You don’t have to share your cars if you don’t want to. You can just be yourself."


Noah looked up at his mother, relieved. He continued to arrange his cars, feeling safe and understood. Lily eventually wandered off to join the other children, leaving Noah in peace.

For now, Noah wasn't ready to learn social skills or share his toys, and that was okay. The park still felt overwhelming, but knowing he didn't have to change made it a little easier. One day, he might be ready, but for now, he could just be Noah, finding comfort in his own way.


 

Noah's experience in the park highlights an important aspect of childhood development: every child is different when it comes to being ready to learn social skills. Just like Noah found comfort in playing with his toy cars alone, many children need their own time and space before they feel ready to engage with others. It's essential for us, as parents, to recognize and respect this.


In this blog post, I'll share how you can determine if your child is ready to learn social skills in a structured setting, such as school or a social skills group. While all kids benefit from interacting with others—for example, through learning by watching and getting comfortable in groups—some may benefit more with one-on-one learning first. Once they've mastered these basics, they will get more benefit from social skills training in group settings. I'll also cover the typical order and ages when kids develop some key skills. With this information in hand, you can make better informed choices about how best to support your child's precious early years.


Ready… or Not…


Determining if your child has the readiness skills for learning social skills involves careful observation. In many cases, consultation with professionals who specialize in child behavior and child development can provide insight. Remember, every child is unique, and readiness can vary.  Here are key areas to evaluate to pay attention to:


1. Basic Communication Abilities

child making a happy face
  • Notice: Does your child have basic verbal or non-verbal communication skills? Can they express needs and wants, either through words, gestures, or alternative communication methods?

  • They are ready if… they can make simple requests, understand basic instructions, or use a communication aid effectively. These skills provide a foundation to build on.


2. Attention and Focus

  • Notice: Can your child pay attention to an activity or interaction for a few minutes at a time? Do they follow simple, one-step directions?

  • They are ready if… they have the ability to sustain attention and follow basic instructions, both of which are crucial for participating in structured group and social skills activities.


3. Motivation to Engage

  • Notice: Does your child show interest in interacting with others, even if they find it challenging? Do they enjoy activities involving other children or adults, such as playing games or listening to stories?

  • They are ready if… they show a basic level of interest in social interaction.


Child imitating adult

4. Imitation Skills

  • Notice: Does your child imitate simple actions or sounds? Can they mimic behaviors or actions after observing someone else?

  • They are ready if… they can imitate others, including both children and adults.


5. Emotional Regulation

  • Notice: Can your child manage basic emotions and recover from distress with some support? Are they able to participate in activities without frequent meltdowns?

  • They are ready if… they have some degree of emotional regulation (remember that all young children experiencing some degree of emotional behavior, such as crying and tantrums).


6. Receptive Language Skills

toddler following directions to put item in cup
  • Notice: Does your child understand simple phrases or instructions? Can they respond to their name and follow basic requests?

  • They are ready if… they have some understanding of spoken language, as it enables your child to comprehend and respond appropriately.


What Are Social Developmental Milestones?


Not only do we need to pay attention to whether they are ready, we also need to be aware of social developmental sequence and where you child is currently falling in it.  Children usually learn key skills and abilities in a specific order known as 'developmental sequences.' Progress through the sequence is typically tracked through developmental milestones, which are key skills or abilities that children typically acquire at specific ages or stages of development. These milestones provide insight into a child's ability to engage, communicate, and build relationships.

It's important to note that while developmental milestones provide a general framework, children develop at their own pace, and there is considerable variation in the timing of reaching milestones among children. Due to the unique characteristics and challenges associated with autism, this sequence may differ for autistic children, often progressing at a slower pace and occasionally skipping certain steps.


Here are some key early social developmental milestones:


children playing with zoo animal toys
  1. Eye Contact and Joint Attention

  • Typical Milestone: By 6 months, most infants make eye contact and begin to follow the gaze of their caregivers, a skill known as joint attention.

  • In Children with Autism: Eye contact may be limited, and they might not follow another person’s gaze or point to objects of interest.

  1. Responding to Their Name

  • Typical Milestone: By 9 months, most babies respond to their name by looking at the person calling them.

  • In Children with Autism: They might not respond to their name consistently or might appear to be ignoring you.


preschooler pretending to cook
  1. Imitative Play and Gestures

  • Typical Milestone: By 12 months, children start to imitate gestures such as waving or clapping and engage in simple imitative play.

  • In Children with Autism: They might not imitate actions or gestures as readily and may prefer solitary play over interactive games.


  1. Pretend Play

  • Typical Milestone: By 18-24 months, children engage in pretend play, like feeding a doll or playing house.

  • In Children with Autism: Pretend play might be absent or less complex. They might focus more on repetitive activities with toys.


  1. Developing Friendships

  • Typical Milestone: By 3-4 years, children start forming friendships and show interest in playing with peers.

  • In Children with Autism: They might struggle with initiating or maintaining peer interactions and might prefer playing alone or with adults.


It is beyond the scope of this blog to list all of the different milestones. Luckily, there are many sources of information about milestones, some of which are listed in Resources below.


When the Time is Right


Taken together, considering whether your child is showing readiness skills, along with recognizing where they fall in the developmental sequence, can help you make the right decision about whether it is time to include a focus on learning social skills. If not, that’s okay. Help them develop those readiness skills! Don’t worry, at some point the story will change. Here’s a different ending to Noah’s story, after he was ready to learn social skills (see if you can notice some of the readiness skills!).


 

The next day, Noah's mother brought a small blanket for him to sit on, giving him a sense of security in his familiar routine. He arranged his cars meticulously, feeling the comfort of their order.


A little girl named Lily wandered over. "Can I play too?" she asked, her eyes wide with curiosity.

Noah's eyes widened in panic, and he shook his head again. Lily stood there for a moment, then sat a little distance away, watching quietly.


After a while, Lily began to draw shapes in the sand. Noah glanced at her work. Noah’s mom noticed his interest. She crouched down near Lily and whispered to her “I bet he’d love it if you drew a car.” Lily drew a car in the sand, looking up at him with a smile.


preschoolers playing in sand box

Noah hesitated, then took one of his cars and rolled it slowly towards her drawing and they briefly made eye contact, then looked at the car. Lily clapped her hands in delight but didn't touch his cars. They played side by side, each in their own way.


Noah's face brightened with a shy smile. He didn't have to share his cars to feel connected. The park started to feel less overwhelming, and more like a place where he could belong, one careful step at a time.


 

Resources




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