Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) simply do not develop social skills as easily as their “typical” peers. They may earnestly seek friendships and then, having endured rebuffs (if not downright brutality), they retreat to the safety of their own company. Moms and dads need to take the long view of social problems and map out a plan to solve them as carefully and thoughtfully as they would academic or health problems.
There are times when a mother or father must reach out for help, and it is generally the mother who, faced with this task, is going to have to locate the available candidates in the neighborhood and select a youngster who would make an appropriate playmate for her AS or HFA child. (Note: Sex is not an issue here. When kids are young, boys and girls play equally well together.)
It is helpful if the mother of the AS or HFA child approaches the playmate’s parent and explains the situation. She is asking to “borrow” the playmate for a supervised visit in her home. Bribery is acceptable here. She can make it a special occasion (e.g., lunch or a cookie-making party). Snacks may be served first, and then the youngsters may have a short play period. The moment either youngster shows signs of boredom or agitation, the visit should be brought to an end. The first visit needs to end on a happy note if more are to follow.
As these “one-to-one” visits become more commonplace, the mom of the AS or HFA child can structure a simple activity that the kids can handle without her (e.g., blowing soap bubbles or playing with clay). If the activity goes well, the mom should fade into the woodwork for 10 to 20 minutes, staying within earshot so that she can step in if things start to deteriorate.
Eventually, if things continue to progress well, the AS or HFA youngster should be allowed to try a short visit to the playmate’s house. This also must be structured. The mom should accompany her youngster to the playmate’s home and make arrangements to pick up her child at a specified time, suggesting that she be contacted by phone if the visit needs to be terminated early. She should not drop-off the AS/HFA child and head for the Mall. There’s a possibility that the child may panic during his or her first big excursion and decide to go back home – “right now!”
Gradually, less structure is needed. Perhaps the mom will need only to walk her AS or HFA youngster to the corner and watch while her child travels the rest of the distance alone (assuming the playmate lives in the same neighborhood). Finally, the youngster may be allowed to go all by himself or herself, making a phone call to mom upon reaching the destination. Of course, social development will continue until such time that the youngster can come and go to his or her friend’s house as he or she chooses, without the tedious planning.
Eventually, there will come a time to enlarge the AS/HFA youngster’s group, and the experience repeats itself, with mom structuring initial group contacts and standing alert to terminate them if the play session begins to deteriorate. “Group play” holds a greater possibility for problems than one-to-one play. Kids tend to “gang up” and take sides. But this, too, can be circumvented if the mother or father is creative and innovative. Nothing is quite as effective as a quick and attractive change of subject (e.g., “Who wants to help me bake cupcakes?”).
All of the social skills training you have provided for your AS or HFA youngster will carry over into the school environment. And you can be sure that educators will be very grateful. Too often, the “special needs” youngster reaches the classroom totally untutored in social relationships, and the educator is expected to do the job. Most educators will react favorably to a request for a conference on social needs. This is the time to explain what you have tried to do at home. You can discuss your youngster’s needs for a special friend. After becoming familiar with the personalities of the youngsters in the class, the educator can arrange to team your youngster with another student of similar disposition and interests in terms of seating, play-pairs, playground-pairs, and even walking to and from school.
Kids with AS and HFA need extra help in developing social skills. Their impulsivity and low-frustration tolerance often lead to poor relationships. They often fail to “tune-in” to the social cues and non-verbal signals in their environment, and thus fail to learn social skills through experience. Also, these kids have difficulty processing information from the social environment and have difficulty with self-expression. But with a little effort and the right tools, moms and dads can equip their “special needs” child with a good set of social skills that will follow him or her into adulthood.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management