• Lisa Tew

Soft Skills vs Hard Skills

Is your child with high functioning autism or Asperger’s a good student? Has he or she earned good grades at school? Can their knowledge base help them to get a good job when they are adults? The answer is possibly, but that knowledge base is not the most important thing that your child brings to adulthood!

Schools primarily teach “hard skills”, that is to say, schools teach specific knowledge and measurable skills such as math, reading, keyboarding, and history. Soft skills, or interpersonal skills, such as problem solving, listening, empathy, adaptability, using/reading body language, and getting along with others, may be encouraged at school but are not specifically taught nor are they a primary focus or purpose of academic education. There may even have been peer mentors for your child in high school who helped from time to time to steer him or her through the maze of interpersonal relationships, but this was not intensive daily direct instruction or focused practice such as your child would have received in any academic hard skill area. The high school diploma represents satisfactory academic performance at a level and in areas of knowledge (hard skills) required by the state. Likewise, a college degree may be obtained despite an individual having very weak soft skills.

While it is desirable and helpful to have a strong knowledge base, hard skills are not in fact as strong a predictor of success in adulthood as soft skills. Employers are looking for individuals with soft skills, and so are friends!

Unfortunately for young people with high functioning autism and Asperger’s, hard skills may come easily, but soft skills are much more difficult to learn and use. Your child may be very capable academically, and has likely spent all of his or her childhood at school primarily learning hard skills, perhaps very focused on attaining “good grades”, which are appealingly concrete and receive a great deal of emphasis at school. But ultimately your child transitions into the rest of his or her life as an adult where soft skills, not hard skills, will be the most powerful determinant of whether they can get and keep a job and, importantly, personal relationships.

The good news is that soft skills can be improved, and you as the parent or adult in his or her life are the ideal coach. They are not as easy to teach or measure as hard skills, and it may take longer for your child on the autism spectrum to develop them. You the parent can help to shift the primary focus from hard skills to soft skills at home, and extend the practice and emphasis on soft skills into all the varied situations and circumstances of your lives together. I recommend our book, Autism and Employment: Raising your Child with Foundational Skills for the Future, published by Future Horizons, to help you get started with this, as well as blogs at this website.

As a place to start working on soft skills, coach your child on the positive body language and word choices that show that your child notices and acknowledges others. This is almost universally a weakness for individuals on the autism spectrum of any age or ability. What does your child need to do to acknowledge others?

Make eye contact as much as possible (this is often difficult but some is better than none).

Face the person with upright body.

Have a friendly face and voice tone.

Say “hello, how are you doing?” before speaking to a person to get his or her needs met.

Say “goodbye” before leaving the presence of the person.

Acknowledge the feelings of others if those are expressed or evident (ex: “I’m sorry you are sad”, “That’s great news!”).

Please check out the blog titled “Acknowledging Others” for more on this topic!

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