High-Functioning Autism (HFA), formerly “Asperger Syndrome,” is first and foremost a social disorder. Children with HFA are not only socially isolated, but also demonstrate an abnormal type of social interaction that can’t be explained by other factors (e.g., shyness, short attention span, aggressive behavior, lack of experience in a given area, etc.).
Children with HFA are notable for their lack of motivation to interact with others. However, their social difficulties frequently stem from an incompetence and lack of knowledge and skill in initiating and responding in various situations and under variable conditions. For example, an adolescent with HFA may appear odd because of his continuous insistence on sharing with peers an obsessive interest in space craft, despite their displays of apathy for this topic.
The fact that social difficulties of young people with HFA range from social withdrawal and detachment to unskilled social activeness is well documented. Nonetheless, even within this broad range, these kids are thought to be socially stiff, socially awkward, emotionally blunted, self-centered, inflexible, and have difficulty in understanding nonverbal social cues.
Preliminary evidence suggests that children with HFA may be able to infer the meaning of facial expressions as well as match events with facial expression. But, the difficulty arises when dealing with the simultaneous presentation of facial, voice, body, and situational cues. Thus, even when HFA kids and adolescents actively try to seek out others, they encounter social isolation because of their lack of understanding of the rules of social behavior (e.g., eye contact, proximity to others, gestures, posture, etc.).
Children with HFA often are able to engage in routine social interactions (e.g., basic greetings) without being able to engage in extended interactions or reciprocal conversations. Parents often describe their HFA children as lacking an awareness of social standards and protocol, lacking common sense, tending to misinterpret subtle social prompts, cues, and unspoken messages, and displaying a variety of socially unaccepted habits and behaviors.
Children with HFA also typically display emotional vulnerability and stress. For example, they may become upset if they think others are invading their space or when they are in unpredictable and novel social situations. However, in contrast to “typical” children, many HFA children do not reveal stress through voice tone, overt agitation, and so on. As a result, they may escalate to a point of crisis because of others' unawareness of their excitement or discomfort along with their own inability to predict, control, and manage uncomfortable situations. Also, it is very clear that kids and teens with HFA are relatively easy targets for those who are prone to teasing and bullying others.
While they are known by others for their lack of social awareness, many HFA children are very aware that they are different from their friends and classmates. As a result, problems with self-esteem and self-concept are common. These problems often are particularly significant during the teenage years and young adulthood.
Variable social situations make it difficult for children with HFA to apply social rules in a rigid and consistent way. Social rules vary with circumstances (i.e., there are no inflexible and universal social conventions and rules). This lack of social consistency is especially confusing for kids with HFA. They often painfully discover that interactions that may be tolerated - or even reinforced - in one setting are rejected or punished in others. For instance, one 5th grader with Asperger’s could not understand why his calling Mr. Potts (his teacher) "Mr. Potty" in the restroom was the source of great delight to his classmates, while saying this in the classroom in the presence of Mr. Potts drew a much different response.
Kids and teens with HFA do not acquire greater social awareness and skill merely as a function of age. All young people are required to use increasingly sophisticated social skills and to interpret ever more subtle social nuances as they progress through school. For that reason, children diagnosed with HFA may find themselves more and more in conflict with prevailing social norms as they move through the teenage years and young adulthood. As a result of these requirements and the experiences that follow, these individuals are vulnerable to developing a variety of problems. For example, studies of adolescents diagnosed with HFA indicated that they often experience increased discomfort and anxiety in social situations, along with a continuing inability to effectively interact with friends and classmates.
Depression and anxiety may also appear during adolescence. Clinical reports have revealed that adolescents and young adults with HFA seem to be at higher risk for depression than their “typical” peers.
Since one of the most significant problems for children and teens with HFA is difficulty in social interaction, the most important thing parents can do is involve their child in social skills training. As HFA has become more and more common, a sort of industry has grown up around teaching social skills to these “special needs” kids.
Social skills therapists come from a wide range of backgrounds and training (e.g., social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, speech/language therapists, etc.) and specialize in working with children on the autism spectrum. In recent years, "do it yourself" social skills training strategies (in the form of videos, books, and eBooks) for moms and dads of HFA kids have become available. Social skills training will provide HFA children with the ability to converse, share, play, and work with “typical” peers. In an ideal world, such training will allow these kids to become almost indistinguishable from their non-autistic peers.
The best social skills practitioners are not so much trained as born. They happen to be very talented in their own field, with an innate understanding of how to help children and teens with HFA "get" how others think, feel, and act. Thus, the fact that someone has been trained in a particular social skills method does not necessarily make him or her the perfect therapist. The best way to decide if a therapist is right for you and your youngster is to attend a few sessions.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management