What is Social Skills Training (SST) and When is it Used?

Social Skills TrainingOne of the core features of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) relates to understanding and behaving in social situations. Many children and adults with ASD need specific support to learn about social behaviors and how to engage with:

  • family members
  • friends
  • the community

Individuals with ASD may be motivated to have meaningful interactions with others; however, many need systematic teaching to have successful social outcomes. Social Skills Training (SST) represents one evidence-based method for helping individuals with ASD better understand social interactions and how to engage with others socially.

What is Social Skills Training (SST)? 

SST refers to a wide range of interventions and instructional methods used to help an individual understand and improve social skills. Sometimes referred to as social skills groups, SST is often associated with the fields of:

  • applied behavior analysis
  • special education
  • cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • relationship-based therapies

A variety of professionals implement SST, including:

  • teachers
  • behavior analysts
  • school psychologist
  • therapists
  • autism support professionals

Research also suggests that parents can train to implement SST programs effectively.  

What skills can be taught with SST?

What skills can be taught with SST?SST addresses a wide range of social skills. While there are many different ways to define social skills, in general, SST focuses on the rules and behaviors that help individuals interact with one another. 

Some examples of skills targeted in SST programs include: 

  • Initiating conversations
  • Greetings
  • Appropriate eye contact 
  • Social interaction
  • How to behave in specific social and community settings
  • Understanding emotions and facial expressions
  • Gestures and body language 
  • Assertiveness
  • Empathy

SST programs vary significantly based on the age and skill level of participants. Social skills for children with autism might include fundamental play skills like:

  • turn-taking
  • waiting for others
  • eye contact

Social skills for adolescents and young adults with ASD might consist of:

  • expressing opinions
  • workplace behavior
  • maintaining friendships

One benefit of social skills programs is that they are fully customizable for each individual’s strengths and needs.

Is SST evidence-based?

According to the National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice (NCAPE), SST is an evidence-based method for teaching social skills. To be considered evidence-based, researchers and provider professionals have published sufficient and quality research showing that social skills training results in improved outcomes for individuals with ASD. 

Why is teaching social skills necessary?

Most social skills programs for autism, including SST, recognize the critical need to address social skills. By tackling a wide range of social skills, SST addresses one of the core symptoms of autism outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).   Multiple studies show that developing social skills in children with autism can:

  • increase appropriate peer interactions
  • reduce problem behavior
  • increase academic performance  

Different types of Social Skills Training

As mentioned above, there is no one-size-fits-all format for social skills programs. Individuals with ASD have a wide range of skills, so finding an SST program that fits well for each child is essential. To describe how SST programs can differ, here are four different types of SST: 

Peer Mediated Instruction and Interventions –

In peer-mediated instruction and intervention (PMII), children without an associated diagnosis are trained to be ‘peer mentors’ or ‘peer tutors.’ The peer mentors are then assigned a series of tasks to work with classmates with ASD, including how to facilitate social and play interactions. PMI programs also structure the physical environment of a classroom or clinic to promote social interactions.  

Social Stories and Scripts –

Social stories and scripts are one SST method that involves describing a particular social concept using written or visual materials. Social stories and scripts can be customized to capture the strengths and motivations of a specific individual. There is limited evidence that social stories alone assist children with ASD in learning social skills. 

Instead, social stories work best when combined with role-play, peer-intervention, or rehearsal models where the individual practices and receives feedback on performance 

Video Modeling –

One of the most effective social skills training methods involves using video as a tool to teach social concepts. In this training method, the individual watches a video demonstration of a behavior and then attempts to perform the social skill immediately after. Videos can be of other children or adults engaging with others, or videos of the individual can be collected and watched later. 

PEERS (UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills) –

{PEERS involves weekly, 90-minute group sessions for 3-4 months for children with ASD aged preschool to young adults. Sessions tackle a variety of different social skills taught through:

  • lessons
  • role-play
  • group activities

These are designed to foster socialization. A parent or caregiver often attends, who trains to help the learner practice the skills at home and in the community. 

According to a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, young adults who completed social skills classes through PEERS continue to increase their social connections months after their training.  The same study also showed a decrease in autism symptoms during the same time period.

Steps to Incorporate SST into the Classroom

Krasney, Williams, Provencal, and Ozonoff (2003), describe the critical ingredients for success required in social skills interventions for children with ASD. For anyone considering implementing social skills training into a classroom, clinic, or home-based program, plan to incorporate some of the elements: 

1. Make the abstract concrete.

Learners should be given actionable steps for each social skill to be taught. Many children with ASD struggle with abstract concepts and application of complex social norms. Focus on teaching concrete tasks to:

  • observe
  • practice
  • rehearse

Repeat the process until the individual with ASD can fluently demonstrate the skill. 

2. Create structure and predictability.

Each time the social skills group assembles, use a similar format and routine. Many children with ASD benefit from structure and predictability. Changes in routine can be disruptive and distracting and interfere with the social skill intervention program. Consider a schedule for each social skills training session.  This could look like:

  • concept introduction
  • modeling the concept
  • rehearing the idea in small groups
  • feedback
  • rehearsing the skill in large groups
  • concluding discussion time

By building this into the social skills training time, individuals can focus more on social skills therapy session and less on changes in the routine or schedule. 

3. Simplify language and group children by language level.

Research supports that children with autism may benefit from learning from peers with similar language comprehension skills. If a child only understands simple 4-5 word statements, teaching complex social skills in lecture format likely won’t have much benefit.  Social skills groups can be an effective way for children to learn game playing and conversation.

Similarly, peers that have advanced language skills may not be the best fit to model and demonstrate simple social language required for younger learners. Evaluate and assess each child’s language skills first before developing the social skills training groups. 

4. Provide multiple and varied learning opportunities.

Not all children with ASD learn the same or learn different concepts in the same way. 

During social skills groups, attempt various activities to teach the same idea to increase the chances a learner might ‘latch on’ to the social behavior in a way that makes sense for him or her. 

Try partner activities. Vary that with small and large group activities. Use video or technology-based learning opportunities, along with role-playing or traditional paper-and-pencil skills. Collect some data on what activities seem most helpful for each learner and adapt as you go. 

5. Select relevant goals.

As mentioned earlier, many different skills work in SST programs. 

Teachers, parents, and practitioners should evaluate a learner’s skills upfront and select the most important and relevant social skills goals before beginning training. Many instructors start at the beginning of a curriculum and complete module after module, whether a child needs the instruction or not. 

This can create monotony, waste time on less meaningful skills, and may even generate problem behaviors. Select the goals and skills that are likely to make the most significant difference in the child’s success. 

6. Program for maintenance and generalization.

Finally, as the learner masters different social skills within a social skills training setting, it becomes crucial to identify ways to bring these skills outside of SST into real-world applications. 

Successful SST programs incorporate generalization tasks, testing the child’s ability to demonstrate the response in the moment with peers or other adults. Likewise, SST should make sure that a child has sufficient opportunities to practice a skill so that it’s not forgotten or set aside after infrequent practice. Take time to identify how you plan to program for maintenance and generalization of skills before you begin teaching. 

Social Skills Training for Adults

It is never too late to start SST.  SST can be an important tool to help adults who have not learned appropriate interpersonal skills.  SST can also be beneficial as social therapy for adults with disorders like:

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Personality disorders

Social skills groups have many benefits including:

  • Helping adults improve eye contact.
  • Learning how to initiate and engage in conversation
  • Effectively handling conflict while developing social problem solving skills
  • Gaining confidence and self esteem
  • Improving overall mental health


Krasny, L., Williams, B. J., Provencal, S., & Ozonoff, S. (2003). Social skills interventions for the autism spectrum: Essential ingredients and a model curriculum. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(1), 107-122

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

June 2020

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