Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Maximize Social Learning by Combining Portable Technologies and Proven Video Modeling Techniques

If you are looking for a way to bridge the social language gap to help kids with ASD, Asperger’s and other learning disabilities achieve success in social situations; interactive video modeling tops my list. This method has research-validated results, and I have seen my own clients grow by leaps and bounds by watching real-life, same-age peers modeling social scenarios, dissecting and discussing the videos with them, and then building social understanding and incorporating those skills into their daily lives.

Interactive video modeling programs, such as Social Skill Builder social skills software curriculum and other video applications available online or in the portable applications (app) market can kick start your video modeling program. These can be readily found by a simple internet search for social language videos or apps, and my website provides an updated list of apps that I recommend. Remember, you are looking for short videos using real pictures (think Snapchat, Vine or Instagram) and succinct narration to detail the skill you are focusing on. Once the parent or instructor is comfortable with the structure and concepts of the peer modeling, they can begin to create customized videos targeting specific skills for individual children.

As the video scenarios unfold, the user steps inside familiar social situations to make choices, predict outcomes and problem-solve. With the visual attraction of video and interactive of the questions, learning social skills becomes fun and entertaining. Lasting improvement can be achieved by using teaching strategies that capitalize on the visual learning strengths of children on the spectrum and allow for repeated evaluation of targeted social behaviors.

Students with video modeling training have exhibited increased confidence and acceptance of transitions in different social scenarios; and increased expressive language skills and decreased anxiety and negative behaviors have been noted in situations that once caused problems. In real life situations, social learning opportunities often occur so quickly that teachable moments such as body language or a glance are gone before they can be identified; but with video modeling each scene can be paused, with the opportunity to replay scenarios and study the different layers of social cues for greater understanding. Such practice provides children with more intuitive insight into social interactions and increases their confidence as they try out new skills in their real-world environments.

Why Social Skills Training?

A 1992 Duke/Emory University study showed that nearly 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, requiring acknowledgment of gestures, body language and facial expressions. Unlike their neurotypical peers, children who struggle with pragmatic language do not acquire basic social skills through general experience and observation, usually because of the complexity of the interaction and all of the “unwritten” and situational-dependent rules. Social skills training uses problem-solving techniques to actively teach children the skills they need to be successful and to cope with challenging situations in their social environment. Research has demonstrated that video social skill training using real peer subjects (as opposed to drawings or cartoons) is one of the most effective treatments for helping children with ASDs and other learning disabilities succeed in their interpersonal and social awareness.

Additionally, research has established that many students with pragmatic learning disabilities, particularly those with ASDs, are drawn to visual stimulation and are often visual learners. Because of this visual inclination, video modeling of social skills meets these students where they learn best.

Levels of Skill Progression

The following levels of skill progression provide an outline for dissection and discussion of the video scenarios that lead to social awareness and integration:


Level 1, build vocabulary – Treat the video footage like a picture book, describing what the children are doing, such as, “The children are standing in a line.” Introduce vocabulary words like facial expression, body language, and expected and unexpected behaviors. These words will help cue a child on what to be aware of as they are watching the scene.


Level 2, use vocabulary to introduce choices – As the videos become stories, begin to offer choices that encourage your student to engage in the scenario. Choices build options for those struggling with the knowledge or language to elicit their own response. “When we stand in line, what should we do? (Pause for response.) Should we stand still or push each other? Should we wait our turn or run to the front of the line?”


Level 3, use vocabulary to expose feelings – This level assumes a solid use of basic vocabulary and provides a building block toward the critical social skill of predicting outcomes. At this level, focus on feelings through the video subject’s words or body language. Focus on telling the story through emotions. “What would you do if you saw your teacher crossing her arms and clearing her throat? (Pause for response.) “Pay attention” is correct. Do you think your teacher is frustrated or angry? You’re right. When someone crosses their arms it means they are upset. Now that you have noticed how your teacher is feeling, how do you think your expected behavior of ‘paying attention’ will make your teacher feel?”


Level 4, feelings and body language lead to inferences – It is important to discuss contextual cues in the video subjects’ body language, behavior and emotions. While this seems similar to Level 3, it is critical to teach and reinforce because so many ASD learners struggle with nonverbal communication cues and making inference. Take the discussion further; “What is the girl in the video doing with her body to show that she is sad?”


Level 5, expand upon choices – Introduce the social nuances that allow one to compare and contrast similar scenarios to determine the most acceptable pragmatic language and behavior in any given situation. Because social awareness is so subjective, this allows the student with whom you’re working to make a detailed analysis of the better versus the best outcome. “That boy was yelling in the store because they did not have his favorite ice cream. What is your favorite ice cream? Do you like other kinds of ice cream? What are some other things you could do if the store did not have your favorite flavor?”

Beyond the Basics:  Using a Pre-Made Product

Using a pre-made product like the curriculum from Social Skill Builder provides you with a guide for building your library of videos. I sometimes liken video modeling software available for purchase and other pre-made video sources to the solid basics of a good wardrobe: it has the jeans, the shoes, the socks, the sweaters. Everyday scenarios are already covered, such as standing in line without cutting, talking or pushing, eating quietly and politely in the cafeteria, taking turns on the playground, bully awareness and hundreds of daily, basic scenarios. Buying video modeling software programs or using other pre-made videos for basic social behaviors will save so much effort and time that any initial investment will quickly be surpassed by their intrinsic value. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you can build upon what is readily available to get the best possible outcome for your student. You will add to the “wardrobe” by creating custom videos that address your student’s specific needs, otherwise known as “do it yourself” (DIY) video modeling.

DIY Video Modeling is Economical and Feasible

The technology available now is perfect for DIY video modeling, because it is economical, readily available, and easy to use. It is no longer necessary to rent or purchase complicated AV equipment, because most of us already have mobile phones with cameras or digital cameras, and tablets.  Compared to past devices, modern technologies that serve multiple uses can be very economical, plus the technology is convenient and easy to manage. Many great editing programs are also available, to help shorten and customize your videos. One example, iMovie, can also be mastered in no time.

Video Modeling Guidelines

The primary rule of video modeling is to present real people in real scenarios, rather than cartoons or drawn images. It is critical to focus on facial and body expressions to convey both verbal and nonverbal cues and to use same-age peers whenever possible.

When you begin planning your DIY video modeling project, first evaluate your student; what are their challenges and needs? Communication between parents, therapists and teachers is essential to key in to specific behaviors to target together. Each video should focus on one concrete skill. Keep the video very short, no more than 30 seconds. Don’t overload the student with too much action or too many choices that will cause them to lose focus. It is important to eliminate even small distractions, such as a t-shirt with words or pictures, and background noises or activity that can cause the student to fixate on something other than the task at hand.

Having the video on a portable device allows you to refer to it during daily situations that arise, and ask the student about what they just watched when they are in the situation themselves. Get the student into the habit of pulling the videos from their memory as a guide to make better social guesses and to make the video learning experience an integrated part of their daily life.

Keep things positive! Show the expected way to do something first, and then encourage the student to predict the positive outcome of a expected behavior with the goal of gradually introducing the consequences of unexpected behavior. Always keep in mind the objective of meeting the students’ pragmatic needs and goals.

Maximize Time, Money and Effort

Think about how to maximize every part of your videos to extract the full learning value, as well as the time and money that have been invested. For example, pull a still photo from a video and discuss it with the student. Point out posture, facial expression, eye contact, personal space, etc. You can use a still photo or a small clip from a video to stop the action and break down a skill into smaller steps in order to ensure learning. Break down the lessons into more basic chunks and ultimately build the skills up to the full level.

For portable cuing of social situations, import the video into a mobile phone or tablet and take this cue into the student’s own environment. For example, if a student is having trouble waiting in line, play the video with him dissecting the key points and then take the mobile device with you to practice when he is standing in line at school for non-verbal cueing. Further, use the mobile device to eventually video the student himself completing the target behavior.

Taking advantage of the technology that surrounds us will not only engage your student, but make social interaction come alive. Students on the autism spectrum need skill examples to be concrete, and we now have unprecedented capability to make the abstractness of social skills become tangible. When you follow the outlined steps to dissect social videos with your student, they will grow in understanding and confidence to master these elusive skills and continue to progress toward the goal of incorporating social understanding into their natural environment.


Laurie Jacobs, M.A. CCC-SLP, is co-founder of Social Skill Builder, a company launched in 1999 to provide computer-based tools for teaching social skills to children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Laurie, along with her sister and co-founder Jennifer Jacobs, M.S. CCC-SLP, develops software and social apps for preschool through high school cognitive ages based on the unique needs of the ASD community. Visit for software demos, find the Social Skill Builder App on iTunes, and look for our free instructive online videos at Find us on Facebook at, or email for more information.

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