Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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HFA Students and Social Problems in the Classroom: Tips for Teachers

“I’m a 5th grade teacher (Baltimore area) with a challenging 10 year old student diagnosed on the high functioning end of autism. My question is what are some of the ‘social areas’ these special needs students struggle in, and how can I tailor my approach to make accommodations for those areas?”

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s have several important areas of challenge that can negatively impact their social competence. 

Here are the main ones:
  • usually have a desire to be part of the social world, but lack the skills to do so
  • use monotone or stilted, unnatural tone of voice
  • use inappropriate gaze and body language
  • take expressions literally
  • over-eagerness to answer questions or participate in classroom activities
  • often talk at people instead of to them
  • often avoid eye contact
  • misinterpret social cues
  • may not like physical contact
  • may “appear” egocentric
  • lack of control of facial expression
  • inability to grasp implied meanings
  • have well-developed speech but poor communication
  • exhibit poor ability to initiate and sustain conversation
  • do not understand jokes, irony or metaphors
  • constant reiteration of facts and figures related to subjects that interest them
  • clumsiness
  • can’t judge "social distance"
  • are sometimes labeled "little professor" because speaking style is so adult-like and pedantic
  • are much younger emotionally than their “typical” peers
  • are easily taken advantage of (do not perceive that others sometimes lie or trick them)
  • an inability to understand complex rules of social interaction

Here are a few suggestions to implement that may help your HFA student with some of the social-skills deficits he or she encounters:

1. Perhaps first and foremost, protect the youngster from bullying and teasing. HFA students often benefit from a "buddy system." Thus, you could educate a sensitive classmate about the situation of your HFA student and seat them next to each other. The classmate could look out for the “special needs” student on the bus, during recess, in the hallways, etc., as well as attempt to include him or her in school activities.

2. Most children on the autism spectrum want friends, but simply do not know how to interact. Therefore, they should be taught how to react to social cues and be given repertoires of responses to use in various social situations. Put simply, teach your HFA student what to say and how to say it. Model two-way interactions, and let him or her role-play. The social judgment of these young people improves only after they have been taught rules that others pick up intuitively.

3. Kids on the spectrum tend to be reclusive. Thus, it would be helpful to foster involvement with others. Encourage active socialization and limit time spent in isolated pursuit of interests (e.g., a teacher's aide seated at the lunch table could actively encourage the youngster to participate in the conversation of his or her peers).

4. Praise classmates when they treat your HFA student with compassion (this may prevent scapegoating while promoting empathy and tolerance).

5. Emphasize the proficient academic skills of the HFA youngster by creating cooperative learning situations in which his or her reading skills, vocabulary, memory, etc. will be viewed as an asset by peers, thereby engendering acceptance.

6. Although they lack personal understanding of the emotions of others, kids on the spectrum can learn the correct way to respond. When they have been unintentionally insulting, tactless or insensitive, it must be explained to them why the response was inappropriate and what response would have been correct. Children with HFA must learn social skills intellectually due to the fact that they lack social instinct and intuition.

Many of the traits of HFA can be "masked" by average to above average IQ scores. This can result in the student being misunderstood by teachers. They may presume that he or she is capable of more than is being produced. Lack of understanding of the HFA student in this way can significantly impede the desire of teachers to search for strategies useful in overcoming the hindrances caused by the disorder.

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Helping Children On The Autism Spectrum Who Have Difficulty Picking Up On Social Cues


Our 10-year-old son is diagnosed with high functioning autism. He is bright and inquisitive, but has great difficulty picking up on social cues and understanding many aspects of friendship. We struggle to coach him in these areas ...our explanations often don’t make sense to him. Any suggestions?


High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's presents kids with a variety of social and emotional stumbling blocks. Due to difficulties understanding implied meaning, humor, and other inferential reasoning skills, these young people are often confused by the rapidly changing landscape of social interaction.

Their tendency toward quick and literal interpretation of words can produce significant problems with establishing and maintaining friendships. Preoccupations with narrow, solitary interests can impede their capacity to converse on the range of topics that typically interest peers.

Moms and dads of kids on the autism spectrum often help them make sense of their social world, but success can be fleeting and isolated to certain circumstances.

Here are some coaching tips that may increase the success rate:

 Road Maps--

Think of the social world as a variety of “relationship road maps” that your youngster needs to perceive accurately and use talking tools to be able to follow. On various pieces of paper, draw “roads” of how conversations flow depending upon environmental cues. Cues include who your youngster is with, where it takes place, what the other youngster says and the degree of familiarity your youngster has with a peer.

For instance, if your son bumps into a friend at a movie theater, depict how the initial greeting may lead to a short period of questioning about the movie, and finally to a closing remark about the next time he might see the peer again. Be sure to emphasize that what is said is just as important as perceiving the available cues in order to keep comments on target and within the boundaries of the environment.

Refer to boundaries as the lines that keep people within the relationship road they are supposed to be on. Boundaries are a critical piece of the social puzzle, but are often ignored by kids with HFA and Asperger's since they are subtle and hard to distinguish.

Make boundaries visual by depicting the kinds of statements and behaviors that are appropriate to the particular “road” (write them within the road) and examples of responses that are not (write them outside of the road). Explain how behaving within the boundaries protect the feelings of others and tells people that we are aware of what is going on around us. Depict how boundaries are more narrow when first meeting people, but gradually widen as they become more familiar. Likewise, display how boundaries are narrow or wide depending on the people present, situation and other circumstances.

Offer ways of understanding humor or typical childhood banter that uses available environmental cues. Kids on the spectrum can easily get caught in the throes of strong emotional reactions to common antagonistic statements made by peers. The intention of such comments may be to entertain bystanders, self-inflate, or trigger over-reactions by the youngster in question. But no matter the intention, if your son reacts with verbal or physical aggression, he is going to pay severe penalties. This makes it especially critical to coach anticipation skills that normalize typical peer-baiting.

Draw another relationship road that depicts some of the standard comments that kids say to each other in various circumstances. Add a thinking bubble that contains a self-instruction to help your son keep his cool.

Multimedia Technologies--

Consider using multimedia technologies to augment social skills training for your son. Many types of multimedia technologies can be an excellent match for the specific learning styles and preferences of children with HFA and Asperger's (e.g., virtual environments, simulations, videos, etc.). Since most kids on the spectrum are visual learners, videos, simulations, virtual environments, pictures and other multimedia are effective teaching tools.

For example, you could video tape your son playing with friends, and then use the video to conduct a discussion (or “autopsy”) of the social interactions. Still images from the video could be captured and used to create a slide show with text or loaded onto a smart phone to be used as reminders when your son is in mainstream environments.

AS and HFA children seem to learn social skills best when they are taught in authentic situations using a variety of mediums. Role playing, listening to Social Stories, observing peer behavior, and conducting social skills autopsies can all be augmented with the use of multimedia tools.

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How to Prevent Meltdowns in Aspergers Children

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and the Asperger’s child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

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Parenting Defiant Aspergers Teens

Although Aspergers is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager with Aspergers are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the Aspergers teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Older Teens and Young Adult Children With Aspergers Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with Aspergers face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

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