Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are hard to train in typical social behaviors, but they spontaneously learn things that neurotypical (non-autistic) children may consider difficult (e.g., memorizing license plate numbers of parked cars or home addresses in the neighborhood). The learning styles of AS/HFA children and neurotypical children are better suited to learn different tasks.
AS and HFA children’s difficulty of learning social behavior is similar to neurotypical children’s difficulty of memorizing random factual details (e.g., phone numbers). Both arise from a mismatch between learning style and task. Intensive long-term training would surely make neurotypical kids remember a phonebook better, but they will never do quite as well as AS and HFA kids. Similarly, intensive long-term training would help AS and HFA kids by supplying more examples to match a given social situation, but they will never have the flexibility and efficiency in social interactions that neurotypical kids have.
Since most relationships in social interaction, language and sensorimotor processing contain many “unspoken” variables (e.g., context of the relationship, body language), social skills training should focus on how to teach AS and HFA children to comprehend, retain and model such intricacies.
There are mnemonic tricks (i.e., memory aids) that can help neurotypical children to remember random facts (e.g., phone numbers, digits in π). The idea is to associate random facts with a story or coherent theme that is easy for neurotypical children to learn and remember. These tricks can be reversed to help AS and HFA children. They can learn to use lists of memorized random facts to “code” common themes in social interaction, language, and even sensorimotor processing. AS and HFA kids clearly have the ability to learn certain “social-themes” (e.g., how to start a conversation, create friendships, empathize, etc.), and it is possible to extend their ability through systematic social skills training.
Unlike neurotypical children, who tend to naturally figure-out complex social rules, AS and HFA children have difficulty “discovering” common social-themes on their own, particularly complex ones. Thus, common social-themes should be explained to them explicitly. It helps to start training them on one simple social task (e.g., how to smile and say “hi” to a peer) and gradually move on to more complex ones (e.g., how to start and maintain a conversation).
Case example: One of my young Asperger’s clients had difficulty listening to his mother speaking whenever there was a lot of distracting background noise (e.g., people moving about and talking at a restaurant). This child couldn’t filter-out environmental stimuli and focus on what was his mother was telling him (he had the same problem listening to his teacher’s instructions at school if the classroom wasn’t completely quiet). So, we set-up a training session as follows:
Step 1: With just one source of background noise (in this case, a blowing fan), the mother gave one piece of instruction to her son (in this case, he was asked to button the top button on his shirt).
Step 2: With the fan blowing, she gave two pieces of instruction simultaneously (“tie your shoe and then please bring me that book sitting on the table”).
Step 3: We introduced two sources of background noise (the blowing fan and a radio playing within ear-shot). The mother made one, then two, then three requests, and her son was asked to respond appropriately.
Step 4: We introduced a third piece of background noise (the fan, the radio, and two people conversing within ear-shot in an adjacent room). The mother made one, then two, then three requests, and her son was asked to respond appropriately
We continued this procedure until (a) there were five sources of background noise and (b) the child responded appropriately to five of his mother’s requests.
Much like a deaf person who learns to read lips, this young boy eventually trained himself to watch the lips of the speaker as a way to focus on the speaker’s words rather than any accompanying background noise. Also, he was instructed on why learning a general social-theme (in this case, attentively listening to others) is more useful than storing specific examples precisely. He was taught how to generalize (i.e., apply regularity to perform a social task) without “memorizing” individual examples (e.g., smiling and saying “hello” to his teacher is the same way he smiles and says “hello” to all other adults).
Indeed, many moms and dads of kids with AS and HFA are concerned about their youngsters’ social functioning. They know that their sons and daughters have many wonderful qualities to offer others, but the nature of their disorder, or more precisely, their poor social skills, often preclude them from establishing meaningful social relationships. This frustration is amplified when moms and dads know that their “special needs” kids want desperately to have social contacts, but fail miserably when trying to make friends. Often, their failure is a direct result of inefficient programs and inadequate resources typically made available for social skills training. While most neurotypical kids learn basic skills simply by exposure to social situations, kids with AS and HFA must be taught these skills explicitly – and as early as possible!
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management