Yes, poor social interaction is part of the disorder. Some kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) do seem to lack interest in others and may prefer solitary activities. For example, Ronnie, age 7, was very skilled at building with blocks and Legos. However, when another youngster would approach to try to join his play, he would become extremely angry, not wanting his play to be disturbed.
Inappropriate overtures towards others, or inappropriate responses to the approaches of other people are common occurrences. Michael, age 6, was fascinated with his next-door neighbor, Tyler, a toddler of 18 months. Unfortunately, his way of showing his interest in Tyler was hitting him over the head. Another youngster with Asperger’s, Craig, was somewhat more sophisticated in his technique. His way of showing his interest was throwing his arms around another youngster in a bear hug.
Difficulty forming friendships is a common fact of life for kids on the autism spectrum. Interestingly, what these kids mean by friendship may be decidedly different from what their typically developing peers mean. For example, Carson repeatedly referred to another youngster in his school, Brandon, as his best friend, although no one had observed the two boys talking or playing together. When asked what makes them friends, Carson replied that Brandon said hello to him.
Impairment in group play with peers is another common difficulty. Unfortunately, most of the team sports so common to school-age kids are terribly difficult for kids on the spectrum. Their troubles with social interaction and peer relationships make organized group sports a real challenge. Oftentimes, sports in which individual achievement is stressed (e.g., track, archery, fishing) are more successful.
Also, these young people have difficulty sharing enjoyment. They are less likely than their typical peers to share objects (e.g., food or toys) with others. They are not as likely to show others any items in which they are interested. And, they generally make more limited efforts to share feelings of enjoyment with peers.
So what can you do to help? Here are some tips:
1. Teach and model compassion. By giving your “special needs” youngster the skills he needs to be confident and compassionate, you increase the likelihood that friends will eagerly come into his life. And friends will give his life a richness and happiness he will always treasure.
2. Show your youngster how to be a good friend and make friends. The best way is to model the behavior you would like to see. There are several ways you can accomplish this at home: (a) be kind, give compliments, wave to a friend, and open the door for someone; (b) be understanding of what others are going through by showing empathy; (c) don’t complain, instead teach your son to accept what can't be changed by working hard to change the things that can; (d) have a sense of humor about yourself and your shortcomings; (e) help your youngster realize his own strengths; and (f) listen to your youngster without criticism.
3. Plan for some unstructured play time. Giving AS and HFA kids some unstructured time to play is important, because they learn the social skills they need so they can keep playing and have fun.
4. Offer a variety of opportunities for play and socializing. Host friends over for play dates or lunch. See if you can participate in a carpool and sign-up your youngster for group activities (e.g., art, drama, dance). Exposing him to different areas of play will help him learn to socialize.
5. Include your youngster when talking to people out of his normal range of peers. Take him to visit a neighbor, or bring him along to the dry cleaner. The more he is exposed to interacting with all kinds of people, the more he will learn to do the same.
6. Empathize with your youngster’s pain, but keep it in perspective. Making friends is a lifelong process and will have its ups and downs. Pain, unfortunately, is a part of it. All kids will experience some form of ‘normal’ social pain in their friendships. We can support them by listening and acknowledging their feelings.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management