TALK less and SHOW more: Many kids with autism need fewer words in social skills teaching

image of mouths

Many children with autism spectrum disorders can get bogged down with our spoken teaching. In this blog post, I offer some guidance on how to establish a visual oriented social skills training style for those children on the autism spectrum who appear to favor this modality.

If you work a lot with children who have Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders, you have seen the following:  A child listens to your words for a short time, and then their brain hits a kind of inner mute button, and your session or lesson is effectively finished.

button created by autistic woman

An autistic woman who at times finds verbal communication overwhelming (her website is shown on the bottom of this button) creates and sells cool jewelry, including buttons featuring visual prompts

There can be a number of reasons for this.  We might be using boring words, speaking too fast, using language that is too complex, or neglecting to reference the child’s preferred interests.   But a common reason for “losing your audience” in social skills training with kids on the autism spectrum is that many kids with ASD seem to learn better in a visual modality. Temple Grandin is a well-known example of a person with autism who learns visually.  She articulates this beautifully in this quote:  “When I think about abstract concepts such as relationships with people, I use visual images such as a sliding glass door.  Relationships should be approached gently because barging forward too quickly might shatter the door.” (From Teaching Children with Autism, by Kathleen Ann Quail )

Temple Grandin, autistic person with visual learning style

Temple Grandin

There are certainly many children with autism who do not learn in a visual manner like Temple Grandin.  But for the ones who do, I believe is important to keep on hand a variety of engaging and meaningful props for your social skills learning activities.   Here are a few examples.

For many kids with ASD,  our frequent verbal prompts regarding nonverbal factors just become part of the unwanted noise they tune out.  But when you keep on hand pictures of eyes, hands, a face and a ruler, and use these as visual prompts during social skills activities, you can get much better attention and retention.

nonverbal prompts for autism social skills teaching

I have used this set of laminated nonverbal prompts for five or six years and they are looking kind of beat up now. To download your own set of nonverbal prompts, click on this picture.

Children with ASD can tune out our words after years and years of verbally prompting to talk less, talk more, stop talking about that, and so forth.  For individuals who might be withering under all this scrutiny and badgering, try a social skills teaching approach.  This toy balance, available for about 15 dollars online, is terrific for social skills activities to teach reciprocity in conversation and relationships.  (Detailed instructions about these techniques: )

Balance, autism social skills teaching prop

Toy balance, great autism social skills prop. Another blog post, referenced above, tells how to use it.


I invite you to explore dozens of other visual-based, engaging autism social skills training methods on this website.

Joel Shaul, LCSW

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