Using Technology to Promote Social Skills in Children with Autism

By Dr. Julie Youssef, developmental-behavioral pediatrician and assistant clinical professor at The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Every child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has unique strengths and weaknesses that change throughout their lifespan. One therapeutic approach many families consider is social skills intervention programs. Often led by behavioral specialists, these programs offer an opportunity for individuals with ASD to practice their social skills with each other and/or typical peers on a regular basis.

The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders recently held a unique four-week robotics camp targeting children with ASD. Robotics camps are ideal platforms to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). They aim to teach children about the technical aspects of STEM, along with skills related to teamwork, leadership and design.

The technical components were led by a robotics researcher, while a team of behavioral specialists worked with the participants to encourage proper social skills. Participants worked in a team to construct a robot and program it to perform complex tasks.

The robotics camp is an exciting step toward developing further technology-based social interventions for children with ASD in our community. Here are a few more ways to promote social skills in children with autism:

  • Identify peers with strong social skills and pair the child with ASD with them so that he has good models for social interaction.
  • Provide prompting for socially appropriate behavior as needed and set up opportunities to practice these behaviors.
  • Celebrate a child’s strengths and use these to motivate interest in social interactions, or to give a child a chance to excel in front of peers. Use preferred activities to create opportunities to play with peers.

Learn more about ASD, including helpful classes and resources.

Related posts:

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    In recognition of national autism awareness month, check out these tips from Kelly McKinnon-Bermingham, director of behavior intervention at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, to include more interactive ...
  • Tips for Being an Active Participant at Your Child’s IEP Team Meeting
    By Jeanne Anne Carriere, director of the Chapman Ability Project, a collaboration between Chapman University’s College of Educational Studies and The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders  An Individualized Education Plan ...
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    By Gillian Hayes, director of technology research at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders and associate professor of informatics at UC Irvine In the past few years, technology has been a ...

Building Hand Skills in Young Children – Tips from The Center for Autism

By Aparna Guttery, occupational therapist at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental DisordersHand Skills in Young Children

Children learn through physical exploration. Some children, including those with autism, may struggle more with fine motor coordination and the use of their hands for exploration. These kids may benefit from addressing underlying foundations that support hand skill development, such as strength, grasp, and awareness of one’s hand. Here are a few fun everyday activities to support these important areas:

Strong Arms and Hands – Activities for upper body and hand strength. 

  • Encourage your child to climb up, down and over playground equipment. Help your child swing from the monkey bars or hang on one bar for as long as your child can.
  • Try wheelbarrow walking and fun animal walks, such as crab walking or donkey kicks.
  • Show your child how to play, pinch and/or cut play-doh or silly putty.
  • Have your child play with a small size water bottle in the bath tub, or have them help water the plants. This is a great way to strengthen the small muscles of his or her hand.

Grasp and Control – Learning proper placement of hands/fingers on small tools for effective use.

  • With your supervision, have your child use tongs or tweezers to pick up objects (craft pom-poms, cotton balls, scrunched up paper).
  • Choose short and wider coloring and writing tools for smaller hands. This can include jumbo crayons broken in half to support finger positioning.
  • Tape butcher paper to the wall for your child to color, draw and write on. Working on vertical surfaces (easel, wall mounted chalkboard) is beneficial for grasp and building control.
  • Beading activities can be a great way to promote grasp. Try stringing beads onto sturdy pipe cleaners for greater ease.

Touch, Feel and Play – Increase awareness of hands/fingers to help with positioning and movement for use.

  • Have your child try finger painting, or writing in paint, pudding, shaving cream, or anything messy.  If your child has sensitivities to certain textures, find something that might be a better fit.
  • Play in the sand at the park and beach; hide small toys in the sand (buried treasure) and have him or her dig with hands.
  • Create hide and seek bins filled with uncooked rice, beans, or cotton balls, and hide puzzle pieces or small toys for him or her to find. Added challenge: cover bin with a towel and have your child sneak his or her hand in and use only touch cues to find the hidden object.

Try to incorporate these and any hands-on activities on a daily basis.  Have fun, be creative, and try to make the activities interesting and meaningful for your child.

The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders is located at 2500 Red Hill Ave, in Santa Ana. For more information, please visit

 Other articles about autism:

Understanding Your Autistic Child

girl with balloonsHELPING FAMILIES COPE
“A most important initial step to understanding your child is by obtaining the best comprehensive evaluation, identifying the child’s strengths and weaknesses, having questions answered, and developing a plan for intervention,” says Dr. Donnelly, pediatric neurologist at CHOC and UC Irvine. “Parents and families need help and hope. They need to believe their child will improve and has a chance for a meaningful life. They can get help by contacting The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana.”

“The main and most evidenced-based treatment is behavioral intervention, or Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA),” Dr. Donnelly says. “ABA is a method of analyzing behavior using certain principles to create a plan to change behavior using specific rewards and punishments, to facilitate social  interaction and communication, and eliminate negative behaviors. Other treatments can include special education programs, speech and language therapy, social skills groups, and occupational therapy. Medical evaluation and treatment focuses on making accurate diagnoses, determining etiology, supporting and educating the family, providing genetic information, treating any related problems, like seizures, and pinpointing associated behaviors such as ADHD, anxiety or aggression, and supporting behavioral strategies or medication to help improve symptoms.”

It’s important for parents and families to be engaged with their child, says Dr. Donnelly. “Speak and play with your child and learn how to be their most important mentor. Get to know them and how they learn best. Identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn how to facilitate their social communication skills and behavior. Become a lay expert in behavior intervention. Have an optimistic but realistic outlook.”

“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as it is now called, encompasses autism and what was previously called Asperger syndrome,” says Dr. Donnelly. “ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by key behavioral features, including significant impairment in social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors. The term “spectrum” is useful not only to describe a large group of varied individuals, but it also signifies a wide difference in the type and severity of specific behaviors. Symptoms can include things like poor social skills, atypical language, sensory issues, motor impairment and developmental delays.”


  • Percentage of National Institute of Health Research funds allocated to autism research annually: Less than 5 %
  • Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in children overall: 1 in 88
  • Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in boys: 1 in 54

View the full feature on Kids and Understanding Autism

Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly
Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly
CHOC and UC Irvine Pediatric Neurologist


Dr. Donnelly is the medical director of The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders located in Santa Ana, a partnership between CHOC Children’s, UC Irvine School of Medicine and Chapman College of Educational Studies. He completed an internship and residency in pediatrics at Boston City Hospital, and a fellowship in pediatric neurology at the Boston City Hospital-Boston University and Harvard University Neurology units. Dr. Donnelly specializes in child neurology and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other developmental disabilities.

Dr. Donnelly’s philosophy of care: “The secret of caring for the patient is “to care” for the patient (as first said by surgeon Francis Peabody in 1912 at a graduation of medical students). In order to care for a child, one must relate to the entire family and develop a trusting relationship where the physician and health care team helps support, educate and guide the family.”

Harvard College
Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington D.C.

Pediatrics Neurology with special qualification in child neurology

More about Dr. Donnelly

This article was featured in the Orange County Register on March 20, 2014, and was written by Amy Bentley.