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5 ways to reduce stress in social situations for children with ASD

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When it comes to parenting children on the autism spectrum, understanding the nuances of how they perceive and interact with the world can be a transformative tool.

During a child’s development, they typically look to another person in an ambiguous situation to obtain clarifying cues, and better understand what is happening, and how to respond or act. This is known as “social referencing”.

What is ‘social referencing’?

Social referencing is a fundamental part of human interaction. It involves observing others in social contexts to gather cues on what is going on. These cues might indicate how communicative another person feels and what they might do next.

For most children, social referencing starts early as they look towards their parents to understand how to respond to unknown stimuli. For example, a toddler might look at their parent’s face when encountering a new animal to see if it’s something to fear or befriend.

However, for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), social referencing can be challenging. These children might struggle with picking up or interpreting emotional cues from others, which can make social situations particularly stressful or confusing. This can manifest in ways such as not responding to their name, missing cues to engage in play, or difficulty in understanding social norms.

Why social referencing is important

For parents of children with ASD, emphasising social referencing can have several benefits.

  • Enhancing learning and understanding their environment
  • Building communication skills
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Improving social interaction

Practical steps to encourage social referencing

1. Use your child’s name positively

When calling your child, do so in a positive context. Avoid using their name to tell them to do something they don’t want to do and avoid using their name when chastising or pairing this with an instruction to stop doing what they are doing, especially if it is enjoyable.

By pairing their name with positive attention, activities or things they enjoy, can help them form a positive association with their name, making them more likely to look towards you and engage in social referencing.

2. Model expressive facial expressions

When you have your child’s attention, use clear and exaggerated facial expressions to convey emotions. Be explicit and intentional in facial expressions. This can help them learn to read these cues over time.

3. Engage in narration

Talk about what you’re doing or feeling without requiring them to respond. Using declarative (commenting) language, rather than imperative (asking questions) reduces demands on your child to respond. For example: “I’m wondering where your lunch box is.” Instead of “Get your lunch box.”

An 80-20% ratio for declarative versus imperative can be a good guide to start. Ongoing narration can help them understand social and emotional contexts more clearly. Do this frequently and intentionally.

4. Create opportunities for observation

Allow your child to observe social interactions from a safe distance. Narrate and discuss these observations openly to help them learn what different interactions and emotions look like.

5. Be patient and consistent

Consistency and patience are key in helping your child develop social referencing skills. Regular practice and providing positive feedback, attention and praise can make a significant difference.

For children with ASD, learning to engage in social referencing is more than just a social skill; it’s a critical tool that can empower them to navigate the world with more confidence and ease. By focusing on developing these skills, parents can provide their children with additional resources to manage social situations, understand others, and express themselves.

Remember, each child with ASD is unique, and strategies should be tailored to their specific needs and progress. With understanding and support, social referencing can become a part of their skill set, enhancing their ability to connect with the world around them and become confident and autonomous, while retaining a sense of choice in their interactions.

About the author

Is my child at risk for developmental delay?

This checklist for toddlers is used to check toddlers aged 16 to 30 months for signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental delay.

Meet our Executive Director

Joshua's professional journey began in 2000, and since then, he has dedicated himself to the field of behavior analysis, both in practice and academia. His area of expertise involves providing direct consultation services for various age groups, focusing on behavior acceleration and deceleration.

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