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Prioritizing Social Experiences Over Rigid Training

Group of interested students gathered around one tablet

At a Glance

Topical Talks: Encouraging students to select and discuss topics of personal interest during class, which gives opportunities to connect across interests, which most social experiences benefit from.

Lunch Bunch: Creating informal, open-ended social opportunities during lunch where students can interact freely, promoting comfort and engagement without rigid expectations. Structure can be provided as needed for students around expectations of what is happening.

Game-Based Interaction: Utilizing simple, engaging games like Uno or Jenga to facilitate casual conversation and interaction, supporting social skills experiences in a fun, interactive setting.

Welcome back to the teaching social skills series, where we have spent the last few segments focusing on ways to give students opportunities to practice social skills while centering autonomy and avoiding a “corrective” approach. 

In Part 1 we broke down some common misconceptions around teaching social skills, in Part 2 we talked about how we can bring a neurodiversity-affirming approach to teaching social skills, and in Part 3 we talked about how to embed Autistic social norms in social skills practices. In Part 4 we are going to give some examples of how we can focus on learning skills through prioritizing opportunities for social experiences.

Opportunities to navigate social interactions in a safe space can be crucial for Autistic students. Autistic students have fewer opportunities to interact with their neurotypical peers and report social isolation at a higher rate. 

While some Autistic people may genuinely not desire social interaction, many have not been given the same opportunities as their peers to determine how they want to navigate social norms and expectations. Offering a safe space where students can comfortably try out different strategies offers a more dynamic experience that is more easily translated to real-world conversations than getting constantly corrected about the “normal” or “expected” way to socialize. 

The bottom line is that creating a situation where students feel they need to “fix” their behavior or habits to be liked is not only harmful, there’s also only so many norms and expectations that can be imparted during a school career compared to the vast number of social interactions we can encounter in the real world. 

The more practice a student has approaching a dynamic situation and choosing the best course of action for themselves, the more they will be able to navigate the huge variance in social opportunities that can come along every day.

So let’s take a look at a few ways we can bring those informal safe spaces into the classroom!

Topical Talks

Certainly, if you are a teacher there is a good chance you incorporate class discussions into your lessons from time to time, but if we want to focus on the social element of this exercise it can be helpful to focus on topics that don’t feel like they are directly tied to a school assignment. 

One great way to approach these topics while encouraging students to talk about things that interest them is to let students take turns selecting topics, whether it’s a favorite show or movie, area of study, or a game or book they really love. 

The key is to chat about the topic at hand and not worry so much about getting it exactly right! If students get particularly excited about sharing their favorite topics, they may even want to bring some information along to share with the rest of the group so everyone has more material with which to engage in the topic at hand!

Lunch Bunch

While topically focused social opportunities can be wonderful, sometimes the best social opportunities are ones where you can just chat with no particular expectations attached. 

For lunch bunch, you might consider recruiting both Autistic and Allistic students to join and largely allow students to socialize without stepping in unless they request some kind of icebreaker. 

Alternately, since the aim is to have an open-ended, student-led group you might offer the opportunity to write down topics and put them in the topic jar, but only pull them out if the group agrees they want to. 

The greatest advantage of this particular social opportunity is that it’s fully detached from the expectations of the classroom, so it helps to do what we can to emphasize that advantage wherever possible!

Let’s Play a Game

Sometimes just sitting down and socializing isn’t the easiest thing to do. While it’s certainly common for people to just sit and chat, it’s also true that many social opportunities occur during group activities, and games are one of the easiest group activities to facilitate in a school setting! Consider games that are not overly complex and do not require considerable strategizing to play. 

Games should offer participants something to do reasonably often while still leaving plenty of room to chat, whether it’s talking about the game at hand or something else entirely. 

Games like Uno, Jenga, or Sorry! are great examples of games that require regular participation and some degree of thought and strategy, but not so much that someone might risk getting lost in the decision-making process rather than have an opportunity to chat with friends.


There are so many ways to offer additional safe opportunities for social skills practice to students, and we hope these ideas have spurred some thinking on ways you can fit those social opportunities into your schedule and curriculum. 

If you’d like to see us cover this topic more in-depth, have your own suggestions, or want to share a personal experience then we’d love to hear from you at . Otherwise, we will be back next week to focus on our next series about personal finance!

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