Speaking Their Language – Helping Individuals with Autism Develop Social Skills

ASHA-certified speech language pathologist Emily Kinsler helps students learn valuable life skills by venturing outside the classroom to explore the world and their passions

As a speech language pathologist and Coordinator of Countywide Services in Howard County, Maryland, Emily Kinsler knows some lessons don’t come from a textbook. She came to that realization early in her career while running social skills groups for adolescents on the autism spectrum who had trouble communicating verbally. Whenever she worked with them on how to interact socially, classroom time always seemed too short. She needed more hours in the week to help them gain valuable skills for communicating, making friends, and finding jobs.

She also believed that by observing students in settings that resembled their lives outside of school, she and other educators would be able to better understand how to boost each student’s social skills. Students could benefit from the real-life settings, too.

“There is some level of appropriate behavior when we are out in the community and interacting with others,” says Emily. “So being able to talk about and see what is appropriate in regular conversations and why it’s appropriate makes students more independent.”

With permission from parents, Emily created the Leisure Time Activity Group. Students and some of Emily’s friends whom she had managed to recruit as chaperones hopped in the school van one Saturday a month and went to bowling allies, corn mazes, arcades, baseball games, lunch spots and museums. Often, the students gave input on where they wanted to go.

Over the course of the program’s two-year run, the impact was significant and clear. Emily remembers one particular student who knew all about fires and fire prevention. A trip to a Rockville, Maryland fire station gave him the chance to come out of his shell.

“He was just so excited,” Emily says. “They were speaking his language.”

Throughout the experience, the student was just a regular kid — because of the practice he’d had on the monthly outings and his passion for the topic at hand. People talking to him might not have known he was on the autism spectrum or had any difficulty speaking and interacting with others, Emily says.

“People spend a lot of time making connections with each other, and these kids have a weakness in their ability to do that” Emily says. “By giving them a chance to work on it in a natural setting, we give them more opportunities to see what’s out there and what they’re capable of doing.”