For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental challenges, mastering social interaction skills can be particularly complex and lead to difficulties in many areas of their lives.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is one way these children can build lifelong social skills in areas such as social communication, emotional understanding, and creating connections with others.

For people of all ages, social interactions play a pivotal role in our day-to-day functioning and in shaping who we are. A strong repertoire of social skills contributes to positive social engagements, self-confidence, and one’s overall well-being.

The Role of ABA Therapy in Developing Social Skills

ABA therapy has many benefits for children with autism. Supporting the development of social skills is one of the primary focal points in ABA. ABA therapists break down complex social skills that are individualized to the child into multiple steps. From there, they systematically teach each skill, building on the child’s unique strengths.

Using strategies such as shaping, modeling, chaining, and positive reinforcement, ABA therapy helps children acquire a wide range of social skills that allow them to live a more fulfilled life. Each child’s social skill development plan is unique. Behavior analysts develop treatment plan goals based on the child’s strengths, current areas of need, and areas that the child is interested in further developing. A thorough skill assessment is conducted prior to targeting social skill goals.  

Social Skills Enhanced by ABA Therapy

Children with autism collaborating on art project

Social skills are a broad category encompassing a wide range of skills and behaviors. Social skills refer to behaviors and skills that allow us to communicate, engage, play, and build meaningful connections with others. These skills are important in various settings including at school, in the workplace, out in the community, and even at home with one’s family.

Let’s review several social skill sub-categories that ABA therapy can help a child develop.

Reciprocal Conversations

The ability to hold a conversation is important for so many areas of one’s life. Reciprocal conversations involve several skills–asking questions, answering questions, actively listening to others, expressing thoughts and opinions, and offering relevant responses. Teaching reciprocal conversation skills can improve a child’s communication and social delays.

Identifying Emotions

Understanding emotions are such an important part of social skill development. As with any other social skill, emotion identification is nuanced with many complexities. To fully identify and understand emotions, one must be able to identify nonvocal communication, scan people’s faces, and understand varying perspectives. Developing these skills is so beneficial for lifelong success. Identifying emotions is also a prerequisite skill for emotional regulation. Understanding the emotions of others can help a child demonstrate empathy and perspective-taking skills.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is another important aspect of social interaction skills which often don’t come naturally for children who are more concrete thinkers. We use many nonverbal social cues in our everyday communication that children with autism may not as easily understand the meaning of. This is something ABA therapists can help children better grasp. For example, understanding facial expressions and what certain body language means. Teaching a child the meaning behind nonverbal cues can help them better understand and engage with others.

Interactive Play

Everyone engages in play differently. Many children with autism prefer to play independently or they may attempt to engage in play with others, but experience difficulty in playing appropriately. They may not recognize personal space or may play too rough for other children. They also may struggle with following rules for activities and taking turns.

For children who are interested in engaging in interactive play with peers, ABA therapy can help them develop the skills and knowledge needed for social play. There are many skills that may be targeted within interactive play such as turn-taking, following directions, following game rules, and playing gently.

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Active Listening

Active listening is a vital life skill to develop. Active listening is a primary component in developing meaningful connections and effectively communicating with others.

Turn Taking and Sharing

Taking turns and sharing with others is a challenge for most children. However, developing these skills can better improve their ability to socially interact with peers. ABA therapists can help children tolerate taking turns. They can also help children better understand when it is appropriate to take turns and when to self-advocate. Teaching a child to always share may open them up to mistreatment by peers, so taking a balanced approach and teaching self-advocacy skills is also key.

Respecting Boundaries

ABA therapy can also help children with autism learn about boundaries–understanding and respecting other people’s boundaries and establishing their own. Again, this is where self-advocacy skills are taught and reinforced. 

Following Directions

Teaching children with autism to comply with all adult directives blindly can potentially put them at a higher risk for maltreatment or abuse. However, following directions is a necessary life skill in many ways, most importantly when it comes to safety. As such, ABA therapists can help children develop skills related to following instructions and help them differentiate between who they should and shouldn’t follow directions from.  

Working Collaboratively

One of the most essential social skills is the ability to work collaboratively. In numerous areas of one’s life, one will need to work collaboratively to achieve a common goal with others. Social skills training in ABA therapy can help children develop the foundational skills to effectively work with others. 


We have touched on self-advocacy in a few of the previously discussed social skills. Self-advocacy is a vital life skill that should be a component of any ABA social skills training program. Asking for help, telling someone no, and expressing one’s preferences are just a few of the self-advocacy skills that are commonly addressed in ABA therapy. Teaching a child to be assertive in communicating when something is not right to them is so important to keeping them safe and respecting their autonomy.

The Process of Social Skills Training in ABA Therapy

Social skills training in ABA therapy

There are many approaches to social skills training in ABA therapy. Because social skills encompass so many individual skills, teaching a child to understand and demonstrate social skills is a systematic and structured process. Behavior analysts start by identifying the child’s individualized social skill goals. As previously discussed, goals are determined based on several factors and should take the learner’s interests and preferences into account, focusing on skills that are most important to the individual.

Once goals are established, each social skill is broken down into smaller components. For example, back-and-forth conversation requires many elements from initiating a simple question to providing a response and eventually carrying on a number of exchanges on a topic. Each individual component is systematically taught and reinforced before moving on to the next step. Modeling, shaping, chaining, and positive reinforcement are ABA techniques that are commonly used in teaching and maintaining social skills.

Oftentimes learners in ABA therapy start by learning social skills in a 1:1 setting. As the child demonstrates mastery with the therapist, the skills are generalized with peers. Another option is social skill groups or classes. In these groups, children work on social skills together through facilitated group activities. Social skill groups may cover a wide range of skills such as problem-solving, active listening, conversating, and building friendships. The goal is to help children develop social skills in a safe and welcoming environment with professionals providing guidance and instruction.

Children with autism having a conversation

Many social skills go hand-in-hand with other domains of functioning. For example, conversational skills are a key area within communication skill development. ABA therapists are trained to work on a range of lagging skills in the areas of communication, learner readiness, adaptive living skills, and behavior management. For many children with autism, challenging behaviors and a lack of functional communication skills result in challenges with engaging socially with others. As such, targeting these skills independently prior to working on social skills is often beneficial for establishing foundational skills needed to better engage with others.

Challenges and Drawbacks

Child with autism taking turns

While ABA therapy can be a highly beneficial model of care for developing stronger social skills, it does have its’ drawbacks. For example, ABA therapists often work in 1:1 settings such as in clients’ homes. This type of setting doesn’t always make it easy to target social interactions. Children may develop the targeted social skills with their therapists. However, these skills may not naturally be generalized to real-life situations with peers and other individuals. Identifying opportunities for therapy to occur in settings with peers is often vital for long-term social skill success. Additionally, teaching children to engage socially is an ever-evolving process. Social interactions can be unpredictable and may require spontaneous responses outside of what was initially trained in social skills training. Therefore, while ABA therapy can help tremendously with building a foundation of social skills, it isn’t the only solution for social skill development.

Developing Long-term Social Skill Success with ABA Therapy

ABA therapy has so much potential to improve the lives of children and their families in countless ways. Fostering social skill development is just one of the ways ABA therapy can be beneficial for children with autism. Developing social skills is a lifelong process. With a bit of extra help from a trained team of ABA professionals, children can achieve social skill success, which in turn benefits many areas of their life from establishing connections and friendships with others to finding academic and vocational success. Each child’s journey is unique and progress may vary. If your child could benefit from support in developing social skills, ABA therapy may be worth further exploring.

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