Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Poor "People Skills" in Teens on the Autism Spectrum

The rules of social engagement are unwritten. If an adult makes a “social mistake” (e.g., saying “thank you sir” to a woman who happens to look like a man), it may result in an awkward moment or some embarrassment. For teens though, social mistakes can have profound and disastrous consequences. If they “fail” socially, they can be ostracized from their peer-group, have difficulty making new friends, and feel a sense of general isolation from everybody.

Many teens with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) do not know how to engage with their friends and classmates. They are simply not interested in the current fads or topics of conversation among their peer-group. As a result, they may experience teasing, bullying, and rejection from peers – and may feel isolated to the point of experiencing anxiety and/or depression.

Here are some symptoms to look for in your HFA or AS youngster’s behavior when he or she is “failing” socially:
  • Behaviors are causing the teen to get into conflicts at school
  • Disengagement from friends and classmates
  • Increase in anger and/or frustration
  • Is so socially anxious that the teen starts refusing to go to school or skips classes
  • Poor academic performance
  • Preference for isolation at home and school
  • Seems genuinely depressed
  • Sickness (e.g., frequent stomach aches, headaches, etc.)

The HFA or AS teen needs to decide for himself when he will work on his poor people skills. It can be tough for parents to sit back and watch their “special needs” teen struggle in the social arena, but they should try to let things play out on their own time. To charge-in and assert to the autistic teen that he “needs to work harder on developing some friendship skills” will only add to his low self-esteem and sense of being an “odd ball.”

Oftentimes, teens on the autism spectrum are not in a headspace where they are ready to make changes (but when they get older, many of them start to feel differently). Here are some reasons why your HFA or AS teen may not be up for addressing his social skills deficits:
  • He may recognize he has some social problems, but is ashamed of them. He would rather try to hide them and save face even if that means losing out in the present.
  • He may realize he has some things he needs to work on, but doesn't feel they are a priority at the moment. Plus, “trying to change” would be too much work.
  • He may not see himself as awkward, just different. At the moment, he doesn't think there is anything wrong.
  • He may fully believe the messages that his insecurities are telling him, and he may not think there is any hope of improving (e.g., “You either have it or you don't.” “There's no way I can just talk to other people and then ask them to hang out.” “I'm just bad with people.”)
  • So far in life, his lack of social skills may not have cost him enough (e.g., a 16-year-old boy who doesn't need a lot of friends and who is content to spend his free time on the computer is not losing much by being ostracized from his peer-group). As a young adult, he may realize he needs better people skills in order to get a job or find a girlfriend, and then be motivated to do something about it.
  • Many HFA and AS teenagers – and even young adults – are somewhat unaware of the fact that they have social issues. They know on some level, but for the most part, they are perfectly content to stay at home all the time and play video games.
  • Like most teenagers, the teen on the autism spectrum may have the attitude that his mom and dad don't really know what they're talking about – especially when it comes to his social life. He may think his mom and dad simply don't understand what he is going through. Even if parents tell him they went through the exact same thing at his age, he may still think they are clueless. 
  • Most teenagers, autistic or not, don't like to think that they fail to measure-up in their parents’ eyes. Even if they have no problem with their poor people skills, they may still feel like they are disappointing their parents and be reluctant to bring the topic into the open or accept the parents’ help.
  • As with most teens, the autistic teen may be particularly unenthused about the idea of accepting help or criticism from his mom or dad. Also, if the teen views his mom or dad as the authoritarian, “impossible-to-please” parent, he will be even less likely to welcome parental assistance.

In any event, what can parents do to help their socially awkward HFA or AS teen? Here are some tips:

1. Don't give your HFA or AS teen the impression that your opinion of him is conditional on how socially successful he is.

2. Encourage your teen to hang out with peers outside of school or through extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, music, etc.).

3. Encourage your teen to engage in online support groups and chat sites for young people on the autism spectrum. Here’s is a good place to start:

4. Engage your youngster in an activity or program where there are adult mentors to help him increase his self-esteem and build self-confidence. Research reveals that having just one activity in a youngster’s life where he feels successful will result in a higher sense of self-esteem and a greater ability to negotiate a variety of social situations.

5. If it is painfully obvious that your teen is really suffering due to his social skills deficits (e.g., feels lonely, depressed, suicidal, etc.), you don’t have to sit back and stay completely silent. Bring up the topic once. Odds are good he won't be very open to accepting help. If he isn’t, don't take it personally. That is his choice. In any event, don't keep bringing it up in an attempt to nag him into addressing the issue. Pick a moment when you have time to speak, and your teen is in a decent mood. Tactfully mention that you've noticed that he seems to be having some trouble with __________ (fill in the blank with the problem in question), and that if there is anything you can do to help, you are there for him. Again, he may deny that there is a problem or want the conversation to be over. But even if he gives that response, you can still lay out some options for him.

6. If there is a relative or family friend your teen may be more open to talking to, mention that person’s name. Maybe your teen will be more open to chatting with his uncle who he looks up to, for example.

7. If your HFA or AS teen agrees to see a therapist, it's important to be patient and let things play-out between them. A common mistake many moms and dads make is they expect the professional to quickly and cost-effectively “fix” their youngster.

8. Let your teen know that if he ever wants to brainstorm some ideas or hear some suggestions, you are there to help.

9. Parents should not feel that they have “failed” somehow because their “special needs” youngster is awkward, or because they didn't step in earlier. You may be prone to feeling guilty or blaming yourself if your teenager is going through a tough time. The fact is that most HFA and AS teens are simply emotionally immature compared to their “typical” peers. After all, they have a “developmental disorder.”

10. Point your teen to some resources (e.g., books, videos, CDs, etc.) that discuss self-help strategies for people looking to develop interpersonal skills.

11. Reduce ambiguity in your youngster’s life by addressing his concerns and helping him understand what to expect on a daily basis so you can help lessen his anxiety.

12. Tell your teen that if he ever just wants to vent to someone about some social problems he is having, you are more than willing to listen in a non-judgmental way and be his sounding board and/or advocate.

13. Tell your teen that if he ever wants to talk to a therapist or look into a social skills training group, you will help make that happen. Also, point out that you don't view professional help as a big deal, just an option people have if they want some outside advice and support.

14. While the HFA or AS youngster may have some real social weaknesses, in other ways he may be different from the norm in a way that is perfectly valid. Those differences may be tied to social skills deficits, but parents need to distinguish between true deficits and normal variations in personality. For instance, there's nothing wrong with being a bit reserved, being uncomfortable in certain social situations, having a unique hobby, having an odd sense of humor, preferring to spend time alone, etc. Thus, parents should not come across like they are rejecting their teen’s core self.

15. With older teenagers on the autism spectrum, parents don't have a lot of ability to further influence their social development – they are almost adults. However, with younger teens, parents still have the authority to enroll them in a social skills training group or insist they see a counselor. A 13-year-old may not like it, but he still recognizes his mom and dad are allowed to make him go to things. But, if parents try to do that with a 19-year-old, he will likely resist any form of treatment or intervention.

We have just talked about some things that parents can do to help their socially awkward HFA or AS teen. Next, let’s look a few things to avoid doing:
  • If you have already tried to help your youngster with his social awkwardness, but he shot you down, try to avoid feeling slighted or resentful. Don’t take it personally. He will take a hard look at himself and the changes that may need to happen when the timing is right.
  • If you were socially awkward as a teen, some of your own baggage may come up as you witness your teen struggling. You may frantically want to help him avoid some of the social blunders you made. But, he will need to learn from his own mistakes rather than from yours.
  • Avoid the urge to “force” your teenager to try to improve his social skills, even if his deficits are making him unhappy. 
  • Try to avoid feeling disappointed in your youngster. Maybe you were somewhat popular in school and can't really understand how your teen seems to be having the opposite experience you did. Maybe you always hoped he would be a great trumpet player or football player, and you can't help but roll your eyes when he spends a Sunday afternoon playing “childish” video games in his bedroom (i.e., games that much younger children might play).
  • Don’t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for your HFA or AS teen. It's only natural that you want to make his pain go away, but that attitude often results in over-protective parenting that tends to make a bad problem worse (e.g., doing too much for your teen to the point where he never learns to do things for himself).
  • Try not to get angry with your teen for not realizing he has a problem, or not wanting to do anything about it. True, the problem seems so obvious to you, but your teen doesn’t see things the same way. For instance, he may tell you that it is impossible for him to make friends. His logic and explanations may not make sense to you, but he still seems to believe them.

It takes time for teens on the spectrum to improve their social skills. If your teen does start working through his issues, don't feel like he is dragging his feet or not working hard enough if he doesn't transform over a period of a few weeks. In addition, give him space to change at his own pace. Maybe he will be eager about making some changes for a few months, but then get distracted by other things for a while.

In any event, don't make your teen feel monitored, or that your approval is connected to his rate of progress. For instance, you go to a family cookout and your teen doesn’t feel like mingling with other family members, but you watch him to see if his ability to socialize has improved. As mentioned before, give your HFA or AS teen the impression that you accept him for who he is – unconditionally! Of course, you will be delighted for him and share in his success if he makes some positive changes. But if he doesn't, you're O.K. with that too. 

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