There are various theories as to why children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have impaired social skills. Some researchers suggest that poor social skills may be caused by:
- weakness or absence of the social gaze response
- sensory distractions, which prevent the child from concentrating on social issues
- memory dysfunction (e.g., deficits in memory for faces and common social scenes), which prevent the child from remembering other people or events
- failure to develop a “theory of mind,” which prevents the child from understanding what other people are thinking or feeling
- failure of affective processing
The relationship between social interactions and proper social responses are flexible, context-dependent, and generalize-able. For example, general (and unspoken) “social rules” are suppose to govern how a child responds when he or she meets someone for the first time, but the specifics of the meeting are never precise and depend on the context (e.g., whether the new acquaintance is a neighbor, classmate, teacher, etc.). Similarly, when family members get together for a family reunion, handshakes, hugs and kisses are bound to happen, but exactly how tight a hug will be, or exactly where a kiss in planted, is variable and context-dependent.
These subtle nuances in relationships are difficult for the child with AS and HFA to learn. The child’s style of learning is such that he or she will try to store each social experience by rote memory. A strong aptitude for rote memory is a typical cognitive tendency among kids on the autism spectrum. For example, these young people may demonstrate the ability to repeat the script of an entire video verbatim or recall specific dates. However, this capacity for strong rote memory may also be accompanied by challenges in simple recall. For example, it may be difficult for the youngster to recall the activity he has just completed or the meal he just ate, although he is able to name all the streets in his neighborhood.
While rote memory helps one retain data and facts, it doesn’t help with gauging the give-and-take aspects of social interactions. Without extracting complex social cues from multi-dimensional social interactions, the AS/HFA child can’t effectively use the stored information to generalize to new, related social situations. The best this child can do is to follow rigidly the memory entry that best matches the current situation as a script. Temple Grandin, an autistic author, wrote about how she handled social situations better as she got older, because she accumulated more examples in her “visual library” and could find a better match to each social situation.
By observing his teacher’s behavior (called “gaze attention”), a neurotypical (non-autistic) student is usually able to predict the teacher's intentions (i.e., what the teacher is going to do next). As a result, the student may get a pencil and piece of paper from his desk, raise his hand to ask a question, open a certain textbook, or simply sit quietly without taking any action. Exactly what will happen is variable and depends on the context (e.g., whether the teacher is writing something on the blackboard, is looking at the group of students with her arms crossed, or has moved from her desk to the classroom exit). Conversely, the AS/HFA student (by virtue of a rote learning style) attempts to store each instance separately and precisely and fails to extract the ambiguous, context-dependent relationship between the teacher’s body language and her intention.
Compared to “typical” children, AS and HFA children look at other people’s faces (especially the eyes) much less frequently (called “gaze aversion”). One reason for their gaze aversion is that the relationship between facial expression and the other person’s feelings/motives/etc. is hard for AS and HFA children to comprehend. If the AS/HFA child can’t glean non-verbal information provided in facial expressions, then he or she will be less interested in looking at the faces of others, which further reduces his or her chance of gleaning important non-verbal information in social interactions. Another reason for gaze aversion is that the human face is a complex, dynamic stimulus that may overload the “sensory sensitive” AS/HFA child who is trying to “read” another person’s facial expressions.
How Parents and Teachers Can Help—
1. Be aware of times when the AS or HFA youngster is more likely to say something inappropriate about other people and cue (remind) the youngster about positive behavior. The supermarket, doctor’s office and other public areas are prime areas where kids with AS and HFA will blurt out something inappropriate, and often at loud volume.
2. Develop social interaction skills (e.g., turn taking, sitting quietly and waiting) through playing games like Snakes and Ladders, card games, etc.
3. Draw the youngster’s attention to the use of facial expressions, gesture, voice inflection and proximity in social interaction and explain the attitudes and meanings these convey. This could be done through drama and role play.
4. Encourage the child to join in any groups or clubs at the school that relate to an area of interest. This will provide opportunities for interaction with classmates. Point out children in the class who are good role models so that the AS/HFA child can see how to behave. This is important as kids on the spectrum can be easily led astray.
5. Help the youngster become aware that other people have feelings, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that may be different to his own.
6. Improving social understanding will help AS and HFA children become more aware of direct and indirect means of communication, improving relationships with classmates and school staff.
7. Children with AS and HFA need to be specifically taught social skills. They do not acquire these naturally by being in a social environment.
8. For younger kids, role play with dolls and puppets can help them develop an awareness of social rules (e.g., when and how to say ‘sorry’ and to understand the effect of his actions on others).
9. Social stories are crucial to help teach the youngster about the feelings of others and appropriate things to say to people. You can create social stories for any situation tailored to the youngster’s needs.
10. The youngster needs to be made aware that he is being addressed when the teacher speaks to ‘everyone’ to enable him to understand group instructions.
11. Video is often very appealing to kids with AS and HFA, and can be a good medium for teaching.
12. Some suggested topics to improve social understanding include the following:
- using and interpreting body language, facial expression, gestures
- understanding words and phrases that have more than one meaning
- understanding metaphors and idioms
- understanding inference and implied meaning
- recognizing that other people have feelings, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that may be different to their own
- developing social interaction skills (e.g., turn taking and waiting)
- developing self-awareness
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management