Having positive peer relationships is important for all adolescents. Unfortunately, many teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a hard time making and keeping friends and being accepted within the larger peer group. The perceived “odd behavior” associated with AS and HFA can wreak havoc in an adolescent's attempts to connect with classmates in positive ways.
Not being accepted by others, feeling isolated, different, unlikeable and alone – this is probably the most painful aspect of having AS and HFA. These negative experiences carry long-lasting effects. Positive connections with others are so important. Though teens with AS and HFA desperately want to make friends and be liked by the group, they often just don't know how. The good news is that parents can help their adolescent develop social skills and competencies.
Here are some important tips on how parents can help their “special needs” teenager to develop much needed social skills:
1. Adolescents with AS and HFA tend to have a hard time learning from past experiences. They often react without thinking through consequences. One way to help these young people is to provide immediate and frequent feedback about inappropriate behavior or social miscues. Role-playing can be very helpful to teach, model, and practice positive social skills, as well as ways to respond to challenging situations like bullying.
2. An after-school or weekend job can let a teenager practice some social skills and gain self-confidence. Many AS/HFA teens feel they are doomed to social isolation until they, for example, land a job at McDonald’s. In this case, the teen just might begin talking to classmates who work at – or come into – the restaurant, and then get to know many of them outside of work.
3. As an adolescent reaches young adulthood, friendships are often more complicated, but it is equally important for you to continue to be involved and to facilitate positive peer interactions. The middle school and high school years can be brutal for an adolescent who struggles socially. Even if an adolescent remains unaccepted by the peer group at large, having at least one good friend during these years can often protect him or her from the most damaging effects of ostracism by the peer group.
4. AS and HFA teenagers need planned activities. Although you, as the parent, no longer plan and supervise your teenager as closely as you did back in the day, church organizations, scout groups, and other after-school or community activities can provide structure for the teenager who can’t find a crowd on his or her own. The grown-ups who run such groups are generally committed to involving all the teens. They’ll take the time to talk to a teenager standing on the edge of the group and encourage him or her to join in.
5. Clearly identify and give information to your adolescent about social rules and the behaviors you want to see. Practice these prosocial skills again and again and again. Shape positive behaviors with immediate rewards.
6. Communicate with the school, coaches, and neighborhood parents, so that you know what is going on with your adolescent and with whom your adolescent is spending time. An adolescent's peer group and the characteristics of this group have a strong influence on the young people within the group. A middle or high school age adolescent who has experienced social isolation and repeated rejection and simply wants to "belong" somewhere is often more vulnerable to moving into any peer group that will be accepting – even when that group is a negative influence.
7. Collaborate with your adolescent's school to make sure the classroom environment is as "AS/HFA-friendly" as possible so that your adolescent is better able to manage his or her symptoms. Work together with the school staff on effective behavior management approaches and social skills training.
8. Focus on one or two areas that are most difficult for your adolescent so that (a) the learning process doesn't become too overwhelming and (b) your adolescent is more likely to experience successes. Keep in mind that many teens with AS and HFA have difficulty with the basics like starting and maintaining a conversation or interacting with another individual in a reciprocal manner (e.g., listening, asking about the other person’s ideas or feelings, taking turns in the conversation, showing interest in his or her peer, etc.), negotiating and resolving conflicts as they arise, sharing, maintaining personal space, and even speaking in a normal tone of voice that isn't too monotone.
9. High schools are usually much larger than elementary and middle schools – and the school-wide social scene can be daunting to navigate for AS/HFA teens. Conversation and friendship come more easily among teenagers who have a shared interest. Encourage your teen to sign up for clubs or activities that will put him or her in touch with like-minded peers. An outing with the Spanish club may spark conversation with a peer in a different class.
10. If a teenager is seriously struggling on the social front, his or her "jump start" might be a formal group designed to teach social skills. Such groups are generally led by a psychologist or therapist, and may be sponsored by schools or community centers. The format may involve structured tasks or be an open forum for conversation, with feedback coming from both group leaders and peers.
11. Once an adolescent is labeled by his or her peer group in a negative way because of social skills deficits, it can be very hard to dispel this reputation. In fact, having a negative reputation is perhaps one of the largest obstacles your adolescent may have to overcome socially. Studies have found that the negative peer status of adolescents with AS and HFA is often already established by early-to-middle elementary school years, and this reputation can stick with the adolescent even as he or she begins to make positive changes in social skills. For this reason, it can be helpful for moms and dads to work with their adolescent's teachers, coaches, etc. to try to address these reputational effects.
12. Get involved in groups that foster positive peer relationships and social skills development (e.g., Boy Scouts, Indian Guides, Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, sports teams, etc.). Make sure the group leaders or coaches are familiar with AS and HFA and can create a supportive and positive environment for learning prosocial skills.
13. Research finds that adolescents with AS and HFA tend to be extremely poor monitors of their own social behavior. They often do not have a clear understanding or awareness about social situations and the reactions they provoke in others. For example, they may feel that an interaction with a classmate went well – when it clearly did not. AS and HFA-related difficulties can result in weaknesses in this ability to accurately assess or "read" a social situation, self-evaluate, self-monitor, and adjust as necessary. These skills must be taught directly to your adolescent.
14. Some AS/HFA teenagers do best in smaller groups with some parental monitoring. Although moms and dads are generally viewed as "not cool" to most teenagers, your presence is acceptable in certain situations. A teenager that is reluctant to call a friend to "hang out" might be persuaded to invite a friend or two to a sporting event, if mom gets a few tickets.
15. Establish a positive working relationship with your adolescent's teacher. Share about your adolescent's areas of strength and interests, as well as areas of weaknesses – and strategies you have found to be most helpful in minimizing those weaknesses.
Cultivating friendships during adolescence can be an awesome task for the teenager with AS and HFA. Cliques are hard to break into, and delayed maturity is a roadblock to social success. While some AS/HFA adolescents win friends with their enthusiasm and off-beat humor, others find themselves ostracized, seen by their peers as over-bearing or immature. Parents can NOT structure their teen’s social life as they did through elementary and middle school, but by using the suggestions above, they CAN give the little push that can get their teen started on the path to effective interpersonal relationships.
Tips for teachers with AS/HFA students:
1. Adolescent students often look to their teachers when forming social preferences about their peers. A teacher's warmth, patience, acceptance, and gentle redirection can serve as a model for the peer group and have some effect on a “special needs” student’s social status.
2. Pairing the “special needs” student up with a compassionate "buddy" within the classroom can help facilitate social acceptance.
3. When a “special needs” student has experienced failures at school, it becomes even more important for the student’s teacher to consciously find ways to draw positive attention to him or her. One way to do this is to assign the student special tasks and responsibilities in the presence of the other students in the classroom. Make sure these are responsibilities in which your student can experience success and develop better feelings of self-worth and acceptance within the classroom. Doing this also provides opportunities for the peer group to view your “special needs” student in a positive light and may help to stop the group process of peer rejection.