Imagine that you’re having a tough morning, running late and low on patience too. But then you drop off your child at school, and her teacher takes a moment to greet you by name. She makes eye contact and smiles at you.

For just a moment, you feel seen, recognized, and acknowledged. Suddenly, your day doesn’t seem so bad. You walk toward your car with a spring in your step.

That’s the power of a positive greeting.

So when it came time to for us to choose autism social skills for you to practice with your child, we decided to start there: with a friendly greeting.

Greeting another person with a “Hello!” and a handshake may seem so simple as to be forgettable, but it’s not. In reality, it’s a powerful part of both first impressions and ongoing relationships. It sets the tone for interactions, and it’s an important cultural ritual too.

The power of a personal greeting

While social niceties are devalued in some areas of the United States, children in other countries learn the importance of greetings early on. And that formal instruction in social skills stands them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

For example, many French parents teach small children to say, “Bonjour!” upon meeting friends and family members. This simple word empowers the child to participate in appropriate social interaction from a young age.

As Pamela Druckerman writes in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,

“In the United States, a four-year-old American kid isn’t obliged to greet me when he walks into my house …. Part of what the French obsession with bonjour reveals is that, in France, kids don’t get to have this shadowy presence. The child greets, therefore he is.”

When your child greets another person, he or she demonstrates both awareness and maturity. That’s why Temple Grandin’s short list of the most important skills she was taught under age eight includes shaking hands and greeting people.

How to teach and practice greetings

Though Grandin has strong social skills today, greetings did not come naturally to her. As she recalls,

“[My] mother and teachers demonstrated the correct [social] distance, looking in the eye and the amount of hand pressure. I practiced my skills by being party hostess when my mother invited guests for dinner.”

So if your child has difficulty making eye contact and shaking hands, take heart. It doesn’t mean that he or she cannot learn. Rather, it signals a need for calm coaching and ongoing practice. Here are a few helpful hints when practicing greetings with your child.

1. Think of social skills as similar to other life skills. 

Since you may not remember learning basic social skills yourself, you may take them for granted. And if you are a person for whom socialization comes easily and intuitively, it’s probably a challenge to see your child struggle.

To prevent frustration, think of social skills as similar to other life skills in that they take time and practice to master. After all, you wouldn’t expect your child to be able to tie their own shoelaces after just one demonstration, would you? So why would you expect a flawless pattern of greeting after just one period of instruction?

2. Strive for progress, not perfection. 

Be patient and celebrate small milestones. Did your child need prompting to say hello to her teacher from Monday through Thursday, and then offer an unprompted hello on Friday? That’s progress. Perhaps next week she’ll greet her teacher spontaneously two days out of five.

3. Focus on a single skill.

Also, remember to zero in on a single skill (or a single aspect of a skill) at a time. For you, looking someone in the eye, saying hello, and shaking their hand may seem like one cohesive task. Since you’re so accustomed to it, your mind doesn’t need to break it down into individual parts.

However, a greeting like this actually involves several discrete skills: a verbal greeting, a visual experience of eye contact, and a tactile handshake. So, if your child has trouble with greetings, practice one aspect at a time at first. Then, when you’ve mastered the individual components, work on combining them.

4. Do your best to ensure adequate sleep and healthy food.

It’s difficult for neurotypical adults to socialize appropriately when their basic needs go unmet. Have you ever struggled through an early-morning meeting, distracted by foggy thinking and hunger pangs? If so, then you know how hard it is to interact without sleep and food.

If you’re trying to facilitate social learning for your child with autism, one of the most powerful things you can do is promote restful sleep and a healthy diet.

Too much sugar leads to wired, hyperactive behavior, and too little sleep leads to fatigue and lethargy. As we wrote in our blog post, A morning routine will help your child improve their social skills,

“A consistent morning routine reinforces a regular sleep schedule, which is key to success in school and socialization. There’s a strong connection between restful sleep and positive social interactions. Lack of sleep makes interpersonal communication a struggle.”

5. Receive help and support.

If your child has the opportunity to work with an ABA clinician in person, fantastic! But maybe you’re flying solo and feeling discouraged, or perhaps you’re trying to supplement your child’s sessions and feeling frustrated. If so, that’s understandable.

We created our video library so that when you work with your child at home, you won’t have to start from scratch. You may not be able to travel to an office to receive ABA, but with FirstPath, you can engage your child in new learning every day.

Best of all, you can do so with the assurance that you’re following an evidence-based, scientifically proven program to promote growth and development.

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