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How to Use ABA to Teach Social Skills


Social skills is a common area that we tackle within an ABA program.  Why is ABA the right approach to use when teaching social skills?  Because in an ABA program we use behavioural objectives that are:

  • Very specific in their content. For example, a goal might be “reciprocates greetings from peers” and not “greetings”
  • Definable and measurable. For example: “When greeted by a peer, the student will turn his body towards the peer, wave and say “hi””.  Each time this happens can be seen and measured.
  • Individualized. Not everyone has the same goals, skills vary and so should program goals.

Behavioural objectives help determine if change has occurred through measurement and whether or not the treatment is effective.  The only way to know if an intervention has been successful is if we collect specific data from before, during, and after the intervention.  If the behaviours increase or decrease as desired, we can attribute it to the intervention (assuming that there are no other confounding variables).

Pre- and post- assessments are an important indicator of progress and should be be used to determine individualized goals. In order to conduct social skills assessments, the term “social skills” needs to be operationally defined so that the behavior is observable and measurable. Because social skills encompass a wide range of skills from giving and receiving items from others, to turn taking with games and in conversations, to continuing a conversation, to saying only appropriate topic matter when having a conversation, it is difficult to do this. Psychological tests address social skills, but few are comprehensive in scope. There are some that exist within the field of ABA which are evidence-based.  We like to incorporate ideas from these assessments into our own which is tailored to our learners.


Social skills classes, by their very nature, are not as intensive as one-on-one ABA therapy. Therefore, just like inclusion settings, it is recommended that children develop certain pre-requisite skills before joining social skills classes. These skills should be demonstrated with proficiency in various situations. Children should be able to:

  • Communicate needs and desires
  • Follow one-step instructions from adults
  • Imitate one-step actions of adults
  • Imitate one-step sequences with objects
  • Respond to delayed contingencies (i.e., reinforcement is delivered following a period of time, rather than immediately following the target behavior)
  • Wait quietly
  • Transition from one activity to another and from one area to another with minimal assistance
  • Keep disruptive behavior at a minimum in a controlled environment

Skills that you choose to teach should be selected and adapted according to the individualized needs of the learner.  Use the pre-assessment to determine the skill level of your learner and implement goals accordingly.

  • Requesting items from peers
  • Reciprocating greetings with peers
  • Giving and receiving items from peers
  • Imitating simple and complex actions of peers (both from close up and from a distance)
  • Imitating peer play
  • Following peers’ directions
  • Taking turns with toys and simple games
  • Tolerating toys being shared
  • School readiness skills (e.g., attending, waiting, transitioning, complying, following group instructions, raising hand, etc.)
  • Requesting assistance from peers
  • Requesting attention from peers (e.g., “Look.” “Watch me.” “Check this out.” etc.)
  • Eye contact with peers
  • Interactive play (involving commenting to peers, etc.)
  • Sharing toys and other items
  • Pretend play
  • Joining in play already in progress
  • Peer games (e.g., Musical Chairs, What Time Is It?, Mr. Wolf, throw and catch, etc.)
  • Offering toy items to peers (e.g., “Which one do you want?” “Do you want this?” “Here you go?” etc.)
  • Initiating simple conversation (e.g., “Do you like this?” “What’s your favorite…?” “Guess what?” etc.)
  • Initiating and maintaining conversation
  • Staying on topic
  • Using appropriate transition statements to change the topic
  • Talking about appropriate subject matter only
  • Interrupting appropriately
  • Role playing appropriate social behavior in a variety of situations (e.g., at a restaurant, on public transportation, in a grocery store, etc.)
  • Initiating play (e.g., “That’s so cool, can I play?”, “Check this out”, “Can I see that?”, etc.)
  • Personal space
  • Co-operation skills (e.g., sharing ideas clearly, accepting/incorporating others’ ideas, commenting on others’ ideas, etc.)
  • Identifying and dealing with teasing
  • Telephone skills
  • Perspective taking (i.e., making inferences about others’ likes and dislikes during conversation, showing empathy, etc.)
    Watching and commenting on a movie and/or video game

An ABA social skills class will break down specific complex social skills (such as: taking turns, conversation, sharing, joining a group, working with others towards a common goal, understanding facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.) into smaller components and then teach those components systematically. Small class sizes allow the development of friendships and teach skills necessary for the inclusion into classrooms and communities. A comprehensive curriculum based on key elements of teaching social skills to students with ASD includes:

  • Structure, routine, and predictability
  • Explicit and individualized instruction
  • Visual presentation of topics
  • Repetition of key concepts and vocabulary
  • Guided practice during the learning process
  • Role play and discussion
  • Contingent reinforcement
  • Ongoing assessments to analyze and adapt teaching and test for learning


  • Autism Ontario (2006). Living with ASD: Adolescence and Beyond. Toronto, ON.
  • Baker, J.E. (2004). Social Skills Training: For Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Social-Communication Problems. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.
  • Cornish, L.K. (2005). How to Find Your Groove. Thousand Oaks, CA: Groovy Kids.
  • Gutstein, S.E. & Sheely, R.K. (2004). Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children: Social and Emotional Development Activities for Asperger Syndrome, Autism, PDD and NLD. New York, NY: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Huggins, P. (1997). Teaching Cooperation Skills. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
  • McConnell, K. & Ryser, G.R. (2005). Practical Ideas that Really Work for Students with Asperger Syndrome. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  • McKinnon, K. & Krempa, J. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-on Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism. New York, NY: DRL Books, Inc.
  • Partington, J.W. (2006). The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills: ABLLS-R Protocol.Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.
  • Quill, K.A. (2005). Do-Watch-Listen-Say: Social and Communication Intervention for Children with Autism. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  • Silver, K. (2005). Assessing and Developing Communication and Thinking Skills in People with Autism and Communication Difficulties: A Toolkit for Parents and Professionals. London, England: Autism Initiatives.
  • Taylor, B.A. & Jasper, S. (2001). Teaching Programs to Increase Peer Interaction. In C. Maurice, G. Green, & R.M. Foxx (Eds.), Making a Difference: Behavioral Intervention for Autism (pp. 97-162). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  • Weiss, M.J. & Harris, S.L. (2001). Reaching Out, Joining In: Teaching Social Skills to Young Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

6 thoughts on “How to Use ABA to Teach Social Skills”

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  5. Can you please provide more details on how to enroll my child (11 years, 6th grade) into this program? Based on reading the description, it’s clear that my child needs ABA training, not specifically tested as we want to avoid labeling, but definitely want to enroll her into a “advanced” social skills program.

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