Social-emotional development is believed to be fundamental to other areas of development such as language, cognition and general life skills. Being socially and emotionally competent allows kids to explore and grow within their social environments, both at home and in the community.


Weaknesses in this area can negatively affect a child and lead to lifelong problems, so it is important they are identified and addressed early on. These Difficulties can be due to many reasons, such as:

  • Environmental constraints e.g. lack of opportunity for interaction stunts ability to learn social skills
  • Psychological disorders e.g. children with the aptitude to develop social competence but lack competence in specific situations that are uncomfortable to them
  • Learning disability or neurodevelopmental disorders e.g. might display minimal understanding of emotional expression and/or poor ability to learn social skills due to brain-based conditions


Neurodevelopmental Disorders affecting social development

Neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, and Non-Verbal Learning Disorder are all related to, or characterised by, difficulties with social, behavioural and/or communication skills. For example:

  • Kids with ADHD may have trouble socialising due to difficulty with impulse control, leading to frequent interruptions, difficulty taking turns and constantly moving around
  • Kids with NVLD tend to struggle to understand non-spoken communication and miss social cues, tones of voice, and body language
  • A lack of intuitive social ability is seen as the hallmark of ASD, which we discuss in detail below


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children with ASD have difficulties with social interaction and communication. Of course ASD is a complex disorder categorised by different clusters of symptoms varying in intensity, however, children with ASD often display a lack of interest or enjoyment in social interactions, impairment with theory of mind, and difficulty acquiring social skills and/or social competence.

Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to the ability to attribute beliefs to others and think about another person’s thoughts. A lack of ToM in kids with ASD is often reflected in their diminished ability to take the perspective of others. This undermines their ability to interact in ways generally considered appropriate in social contexts.

Social competence allows us to recognise and understand social situations, initiate social interchanges, and respond to what a person is saying. This requires social awareness, interest, motivation, comprehension, memory, empathy – it’s an extremely complex process.

Social skills are the tools that enable social interaction to proceed e.g. eye contact, greetings, asking questions, listening, responding, and using/interpreting non-verbal behaviours.

According to researchers, many people with ASD notice differences in their social skills to others as a result of the above difficulties; sometimes in the form of:

  • Trying to talk to people and saying the wrong thing
  • People finding them rude or inappropriate
  • Not knowing when to join in with groups
  • Not understanding what people’s facial expressions are conveying
  • Struggling to understand idiom or phrases
  • Failing to develop age-appropriate peer relationships


Support for Social Difficulties

Establishing positive peer relationships may be the most complex challenge for kids with social difficulties. They often have fewer friends, smaller social networks, and spend less time interacting with peers and playing alone or at a distance. This can persist through adolescence and into adulthood, much to their detriment, as human beings don’t function well in social isolation. This can undermine their physical and mental health, cognitive abilities, daily living skills, and educational/employment success.

So, intervention and skill building is key…

Whilst kids with ASD or other social difficulties can benefit from a variety of interventions, it is believed core deficits in social interactions can be addressed by focusing on social skill development.

Most intervention in the early years focuses on parent-child interaction, ensuring parents can read their child’s cues, provide tools to support the practise of social skills, and encourage interaction and joint attention through play. This then progresses to generalising these skills to other people and encouraging play and activities with peers.

Naturally occurring group settings with peers monitored by adults, like those at preschool and school, are ideal for kids to build social skills. Specific interventions in these settings often include peers (prompted by teachers or carers) encouraging interaction with the child experiencing social difficulties e.g. inviting to play, offering to share, demonstrating affection, as well as promoting social play with toys like blocks, pens and puzzles or pretend play opportunities with dolls, trucks, kitchen play sets etc.



Bishop-Fitzpatrick, L., Mazefsky, C., Eack, S., & Minshew, N. (2017). Correlates of social functioning in autism spectrum disorder: The role of social cognition. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 35, 25-34. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2016.11.013

Bloomquist, M. L. (2013;2012;). Skills training for struggling kids: Promoting your child’s behavioral, emotional, academic, and social development. US: Guilford Publications Inc. M.U.A.

Clements, John, 1946 Dec. 1. (2005). People with autism behaving badly: Helping people with ASD move on from behavioral and emotional challenges. London;Philadelphia;: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Katz, E., & Girolametto, L. (2013). Peer-mediated intervention for preschoolers with ASD implemented in early childhood education settings. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 33(3), 133-143. doi:10.1177/0271121413484972

Kershaw, P. (2011). The ASD workbook: Understanding your autism spectrum disorder. GB: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Case-Smith, J. (2013). Systematic review of interventions to promote social-emotional development in young children with or at risk for disability. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(4), 395-404. doi:10.5014/ajot.2013.004713


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