Parents often know that their child on the autism spectrum needs to be taught certain skills to improve behavior, sensory sensitivities, anxiety-related issues, and so on ...but they may not know exactly what skill-set will work best in any given situation.
There is a specific set of skills that children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) need to be taught in order to insure their long-term success. The progression of skills-acquisition proceeds as follows:
- In the first stage of skills-acquisition, the AS or HFA child follows rules as given, without context, and with no sense of responsibility beyond following the rules exactly.
- In the second stage, competence (i.e., active decision making in choosing a course of action) develops, and the child acquires organizing principles to quickly access the particular rules that are relevant to the specific task at hand.
- In the third stage, the child develops intuition to guide his decisions and devise his own rules to formulate plans.
- In the fourth and final stage, the child (a) has an intuitive grasp of situations based on a deep, tacit understanding, (b) has a vision of what is possible, (c) transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims, and (d) uses "analytical approaches" in novel situations or in solving problems.
The progression is thus from rigid adherence to rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning based on tacit knowledge. Below are the crucial skills that children on the autism spectrum so desperately need to be taught:
Social and Communication Skills—
Social and communication skills are best taught by a communication specialist with a focus on pragmatics in speech. Alternatively, social training groups may be used if there are enough opportunities for individual contact with the teacher and for the practicing of specific skills. Teaching may include:
- Verbal decoding of nonverbal behaviors of others
- Social awareness
- Perspective-taking skills
- Correct interpretation of ambiguous communications (e.g., nonliteral language)
- Processing of visual information simultaneously with auditory information
- Understanding the appropriate social context of an interaction
- Appropriate nonverbal behavior (e.g., the use of gaze for social interaction, monitoring and patterning of inflection of voice)
- Imitative drills (e.g., working with a mirror)
The acquisition of self-sufficiency skills in all areas of functioning should be a priority in any plan of intervention. The tendency of children with AS and HFA to rely on rigid rules and routines can be used to foster positive habits and enhance their quality of life and that of family members. The teaching approach should be practiced routinely in naturally occurring situations and across different settings in order to maximize generalization of acquired skills.
Specific problem-solving techniques (usually following a verbal rule) may be taught for handling the requirements of frequently occurring, problematic situations (e.g., involving novelty, intense social demands, frustration, etc.). Training is usually necessary for recognizing situations as problematic and for selecting the best available learned strategy to use in such circumstances.
Concepts, appropriate procedures, cognitive techniques, etc., are more effectively taught in an explicit and rote fashion using a “parts-to-whole” verbal instruction approach, in which the verbal steps are in the correct sequence for the behavior to be effective. Additional guidelines should be derived from the child's neuropsychological profile of assets and deficits. Specific intervention techniques should be similar to those usually employed for learning disabilities, with an effort to thwart the identified difficulties by means of compensatory techniques (usually of a verbal nature).
If significant motor and visual-motor deficits are discovered during the evaluation, the child should receive physical and occupational therapies. Occupational therapies should not only focus on traditional techniques designed to address motor deficits, but should also reflect an effort to integrate these activities with learning of visual-spatial concepts, visual-spatial orientation, and body awareness.
As children and teens with AS and HFA are usually self-described as loners (despite an often intense wish to make friends and have a more active social life), there is a need to facilitate social contact within the context of an activity-oriented group (e.g., church communities, hobby clubs, self-support groups, etc.). The little experience available with social groups suggests that these children and teens enjoy the opportunity to meet others with similar problems, and may develop relationships around an activity or subject of shared interest.
Oftentimes, older teens and young adults with AS and HFA may fail to meet entry requirements for jobs in their area of training (e.g., college degree) or fail to maintain a job because of their poor interview skills, social disabilities, eccentricities, or panic attacks. Having failed to secure skilled employment, these young people may be helped by well-meaning friends or relatives to find a manual job. As a result of their typically poor visual-motor skills, they may once again fail, leading to devastating emotional consequences. Thus, it is important that these individuals are trained for - and placed in - jobs where they are not neuropsychologically impaired, and where they will enjoy a certain degree of support and shelter. Also, it is preferable that the job does not involve intensive social demands.
Once the skills listed above have been mastered, parents may find that their “special needs” child functions at such a “normal” level that his or her symptoms of Asperger’s or HFA go unnoticed by others (e.g., peers, teachers, etc.).
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management