Social Facilitation: The Path to Genuine, Meaningful Relationships


One of the most recognizable hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder is an impairment in social skills. For instance, individuals with autism may have difficulty initiating social interaction or may feel lost when someone else initiates an interaction. Individuals with autism may also struggle to use appropriate non-vocal communication, such as eye contact and body language. Due to these issues, they frequently struggle to develop and maintain genuine, long lasting relationships with peers. As a part of your child’s behavior intervention team, you are uniquely poised to assist him or her in overcoming these challenges, which will help your child to develop better and more worthwhile relationships with peers and others throughout his or her life.

There are certain skills that should be in place before any social facilitation program can be introduced. First, the child should have a relatively firm grasp on language and compliance, so that s/he can communicate with peers, understand what is being asked, and be willing to respond. The child should also have a reasonable grasp on play skills, since play will be the main mode of interaction. Finally, the child should have adequate motor skills, as this will allow the parent or behavior technician to utilize common types of play with the child and his or her peers (e.g., blocks, play dough, etc.)

Selecting an appropriate peer is an incredibly important consideration in ensuring that social facilitation will be successful. An appropriate peer is one who follows adult directives, since this will allow the peer to model appropriate behavior for your child. The peer should also be accepting of differences and have a desire to be helpful. Ideally, the peer will be of the same gender as your child. Finally, it’s helpful if the peer shares an ongoing social circle with your child, such as being in the same class at school or living in the same neighborhood.

In the course of a session with your child and his or her peer, it is important to reinforce both children. You should begin by establishing something that both your child and his or her peer are motivated to earn and then make it clear which target skill they must perform in order to earn that reinforcer. It may help to set-up a token system for both children, making sure that it is developmentally appropriate (e.g., number of tokens, etc.) for your child. Finally, reinforce both children when they perform the target skill appropriately.

OdoFemi McDuffie, M.A., BCBA
Associate Clinical Director,
Nashville, TN
October 22, 2019