Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are more likely to be lonely than “typical” kids. Research shows that they face considerable challenges in making and keeping friends. There are many causes that may result in loneliness for these young people. For example:
- Change in environment (e.g., relocation from country side to cities, relocation from joint families to nuclear families)
- Change in school
- Fear of school bullies
- Feeling of being invisible
- Feeling of being isolated
- Inability of making friends easily
- Lack of self-confidence
- Lack of social support
- Lacking of understanding from others
- Losing a friend
- Loss of a mother or father
- Rejection from friends
- Relocation of a friend
Signs that your AS or HFA youngster is feeling lonely include:
- draws sad pictures
- fails to interact with peers in class
- never discusses or speaks with other kids
- never invites kids to his house
- plays sad tunes
- prefers being in his room rather than staying out when guests arrive
- prefers staying home rather than playing outside with other kids
- walks home alone rather than with peers after school
When a youngster comes home and says, "no one likes me" or "everyone hates me," it can be hard for a mother or father to tell the difference between temporary exclusion versus ongoing rejection. Fortunately, research studies offer some advice on effective strategies to help “special needs” kids cope with - or avoid - loneliness. Here are some tips:
1. Before parents intervene in their youngster’s social difficulties, they should ask themselves some questions about their own history. For example, do you and your youngster have different temperaments when it comes to socializing? What were your friendships like at that age? Where did you stand in the group in terms of popularity? How did you cope with loneliness as a child? What worked – and what didn’t?
2. Become an expert on your youngster’s social life. Observe his social behavior to determine specific strengths and weaknesses, then share your observations with your child. Also, capitalize on his strengths rather than trying to “fix” weaknesses.
3. Don’t drag your own emotional baggage into the equation if you were bullied or teased as a child. Resist the urge to march onto the playground and chastise the bully for picking on your youngster. Also, avoid the temptation to gossip about the bully’s parents in the parking lot after school.
4. Employ the help of your child’s teacher. Let the teacher know that you are working with your youngster on “friendship skills.” The teacher can then structure the classroom environment to support efforts to form satisfying social connections with your child’s peers.
5. Encourage your youngster to participate in various activities in school (e.g., sports, hobby courses, music, etc.).
6. Give your child a gentle push to try new social challenges. AS and HFA children need lots of support and encouragement, while at the same time being gradually pushed out of their "comfort zone."
7. If you have just relocated to a new neighborhood or city, then it is likely your youngster misses her old friends. In this case, help your youngster to make new friends. Call a snack party and invite all the kids from the neighborhood. Introduce your youngster to all of them.
8. If your youngster is afraid of bullying in school – then take care of it. Deal with the school bully by complaining to the teachers and other school authorities. If this approach doesn't work, then have a talk with the bully’s mom or dad. Confront the bully if necessary, and teach your youngster to cope with bullies.
9. Lack of confidence is one of the major causes why an AS or HFA youngster can feel lonely. The good news is that moms and dads can assist with confidence-building by helping their youngster to recognize his unique abilities and talents. Children on the autism spectrum have way more talents than deficits (more information on this topic can be found here).
10. Look for a variety of group opportunities. Scouts, church youth groups, drama club, chess club, and sports teams all provide an alternative to school as a place for your youngster to make friends and gain acceptance.
11. Nurture your youngster’s belief in her ability to develop better friendship skills. This requires ongoing empathy, encouragement, and problem-solving support from you, the parent, in order to: (a) develop the hope and motivation to persist in making friends; (b) maintain a positive attitude and acceptance that children may vary in the way they form friendships; and (c) facilitate the view that friendships and satisfying social relations as important.
12. Praise your youngster for the efforts and contributions (rather than end results) she does in any particular activity (e.g., “You did a great job helping me plant these flowers).
13. Provide training and intervention to promote your youngster’s competence and sense of control. Different types of social skills training found to be effective include: role-playing, problem-solving exercises, peer-tutoring, and modeling.
14. Teach basic social skills (e.g., how to start a conversation, how to guess what other people are feeling, how to join in group play, how to ask for help, etc.).
15. Try to structure the environment to promote friendship and provide opportunities to experience social competence. For instance, you can set up an opportunity for your AS or HFA youngster to work collaboratively with another youngster on a task or project that they can successfully complete (be careful to select a youngster who is likely to work well with your youngster).
16. Sometimes, you may feel that the social relationships your AS or HFA youngster is developing are childish or superficial, or that your youngster’s friends are too young or not really a good match. Nonetheless, by understanding that friendship skills take time and practice, you will be able to give your youngster the encouragement and support she needs to build these skills in her own way and at her own pace.
Loneliness is distressing for all children. But, for a youngster with AS or HFA, loneliness may become an ongoing struggle resulting from a lack of social skills or a belief that she simply can’t make and keep friends. As a mother or father, you can play an important role in identifying your youngster’s specific social strengths and challenges, and help her understand that friendships require effort and skill. By doing so, you support her hopes for closer friendships and more meaningful social networks in the future.