HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

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Helping Children with Asperger's and HFA to Navigate Everyday Social Interactions

If you ask “typical” children how they learned to read nonverbal cues in everyday conversations, they might reply that they learned these things through observing the interactions of family and friends. Other “typical” kids might reply that they aren't quite sure how they know that a certain expression means a friend is bored or annoyed — they just know. This is because the skills needed for social interaction come naturally during the process of growth and development. However, for young people on the autism spectrum, this process may not be so effortless, and direct social skills instruction is often necessary.

The ability to navigate everyday social interactions can frequently present significant challenges for children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). Social situations that present difficulties can range from the fairly simple (e.g., engaging in a conversation with a classmate) to the extremely complex (e.g., determining whether a peer who seems friendly is actually harmful in some way). Because of this, social skills are often broken down into categories (or types of skill) according to the level of complexity and interaction.

Here is an example of one way of categorizing social skills:

Skill Set: Foundation Skills
Used for: Basic social interaction
Examples: Ability to maintain eye contact, maintain appropriate personal space, understand gestures and facial expressions

Skill Set: Interaction Skills
Used for: Skills needed to interact with others
Examples: Resolving conflicts, taking turns, learning how to begin and end conversations, determining appropriate topics for conversation, interacting with authority figures

Skill Set: Foundation Skills
Used for: Basic social interaction
Examples: Ability to maintain eye contact, maintain appropriate personal space, understand gestures and facial expressions

Skill Set: Affective Skills
Used for: Skills needed for understanding oneself and others
Examples: Identifying one's feelings, recognizing the feelings of others, demonstrating empathy, decoding body language and facial expressions, determining whether someone is trustworthy

Skill Set: Cognitive Skills
Used for: Skills needed to maintain more complex social interactions
Examples: Social perception, making choices, self-monitoring, understanding community norms, determining appropriate behavior for different social situations.

Social interactions are incredibly complex, and the list presented above is not exhaustive in terms of the skills that AS and HFA children may need to successfully navigate social situations. Additionally, each child’s “social skill profile” is different. Some “special needs” children may have strong foundation skills but lack appropriate interaction skills, while others may require assistance in developing more basic skills (e.g., making eye contact).

Social skills training is often used to teach specific sets of social competencies to the child with AS or HFA. A common focus of social skills training is communication skills. A program designed to improve a child’s skills in this area may include expressing feelings in appropriate ways, starting a conversation, nonverbal communication, and assertiveness.

Another common focus of social skills training involves improving a child’s ability to perceive and act on social cues. Many kids on the autism spectrum have problems communicating with others because they fail to notice (or do not understand) other's cues, whether verbal or nonverbal. For example, some AS and HFA kids become unpopular with their friends because they force their way into small play groups. But a youngster who has learned to read social signals would know that the kids in the small group do not want someone else to join them (at least not at that moment). Learning to understand other's spoken or unspoken messages is as important as learning conversational skills.

Tips for teaching social skills to a child with Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism:

1. A major goal in teaching social skills is to develop a program that meets the demands of specific roles or situations. This need developed from studies that found that, for kids on the autism spectrum, social skills acquired in one setting or situation are not easily generalized or transferred to another setting or situation. To assist these young people in using their new skills in real-life situations, parents and teachers should use role-playing, teaching, modeling, and practice.

2. Be careful not to intensify your child’s feelings of social incompetence (this caution is particularly important in helping children with social phobia, who are already worried about others' opinions of them).

3. Generally speaking, kids with AS and HFA gain more from social skills training in a “group setting” than in individual training sessions. Thus, when possible, it would be best to teach the child a particular skill while he or she is actively involved in a social activity with peers (e.g., teaching the child how to share during group play).

4. Move slowly so that your child is not overwhelmed by trying to change too many behaviors at one time.

5. One of the most crucial tasks in preparation for social skills training is the selection of suitable target behaviors. Things will go more smoothly if parents and teachers ask the AS or HFA child to identify behaviors that he or she would like to change, rather than pointing to problem areas that they have identified. Training sessions should consider the child’s particular needs and interests. While social skills training for some kids may include learning self-calming techniques, training for others may include learning strategies for dealing with peer-rejection.

6. Preparation for social skills training requires tact on the parent’s part, because some AS and HFA kids become discouraged or upset by being told that they need help with their social skills. One good approach to get around this issue is through reading self-help books and/or Social Stories (more information on Social Stories can be found here). Also, you can try to ease your child’s self-consciousness or embarrassment by explaining that no one has perfect social skills.

7. Social skills need to be transferred from the training session itself to real-life situations. This transfer is called generalization (i.e., the child can apply what he has learned). One approach to improving generalization is to situate the training exercises within the child’s social environment. Generalization takes place more readily when the social skills training has a clear focus and the child is highly motivated to reach a realistic goal. Parents can prepare their child for homework by explaining that the homework is the practice of new skills in other settings – and that it is as relevant as the training session itself.

8. Social skills training may be modified somewhat to allow for cultural and gender differences. For example, eye contact is a frequently targeted behavior to be taught during social skills training. But, in some cultures, downcast eyes are a sign of respect rather than an indication of social anxiety or shyness. Also, females in some cultures may be considered pretentious if they look at others (particularly adult males) too directly. These modifications can usually be made without changing the basic format of the training sessions.

9. Social skills training should rest on an objective assessment of the child’s actual problems in relating to others.

10. There are a number of reasons to consider using multimedia technologies to augment social skills training. Many types of multimedia technologies can be an excellent match for the specific learning styles and preferences of children on the autism spectrum (e.g., virtual environments, simulations, videos, etc.). For children who are visual learners, videos, simulations, virtual environments, pictures and other multimedia can be effective teaching tools. For example, you could video tape your child playing with friends, and then use the video to conduct a discussion (or “autopsy”) of the social interactions. Still images from the video could be captured and used to create a slide show with text or loaded onto a smart phone to be used as reminders when the child is in mainstream environments. AS and HFA children seem to learn social skills best when they are taught in authentic situations using a variety of mediums. Role playing, listening to Social Stories, observing peer behavior, and conducting social skills autopsies can all be augmented with the use of multimedia tools.

11. As already mentioned, a major difficulty with social skills training is that many children with AS and HFA struggle with generalizing new skills to different situations. Parents can help their “special needs” child generalize social skills in several ways:
  • Teach social skills that are valued by the child’s community (e.g., parents, siblings, peers, teachers, etc.). These skills are more likely to be reinforced.
  • Teach social skills with a variety of mediums (e.g., video, books, games, software, etc.) across a variety of settings and situations.
  • Teach new skills in the setting where they are most likely to be used (e.g., on a bus, in the classroom, at church, etc.). If this is not possible, role playing can be an effective substitute.

12. Because children use social skills in nearly every aspect of their day, every moment has the potential to be a “teachable moment.” To take advantage of this, parents and teachers should try to teach social skills throughout the day in a variety of ways. Some methods for introducing social skills include:
  • Use of Social Stories: Social Stories are a successful way of teaching social skills to AS and HFA children because they can provide them with a narrative or script about a variety of situations and appropriate behavior.
  • Social skill autopsies: After a social interaction, discuss what your youngster did, what happened, whether the outcome was positive or negative, and what he or she will do in the same situation in the future.
  • Reading and discussing kids’ literature and videos: Many stories for kids are on social skills topics (e.g., making new friends, dealing with bullies, encountering new situations, etc.).
  • Incidental teaching: This involves using a natural interaction between the child and an adult to practice a particular skill.

“Typical” children have learned to read nonverbal cues in everyday interactions. For them, skills needed for social interaction come naturally. However, for AS and HFA children, direct social skills instruction may be necessary. When this is the case, using the tips above should help parents and teachers begin the process of effectively teaching such skills so that the child can learn to navigate everyday social interactions in a way that approximates how “typical” kids interact with others.


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