Many children on the autism spectrum tend to have an Avoidant/Anxious attachment style in which they typically repress the desire to seek comfort from their parents or other caretakers when scared, distraught, or in pain. Instead, they rely heavily on self-soothing behaviors as a way to deal with such uncomfortable emotions. For example:
- twirling hair
- sucking thumbs and various objects
- hitting or head banging
- pulling hair, eyebrows or lashes
- picking skin or nose
- grinding teeth
- cracking knuckles
- biting nails, lips, cheeks, pencils, etc.
Even at a very young age, many Avoidant/Anxious kids tend to be independent “little adults,” relying very little on others for help. Unfortunately, their tendency to be self-sufficient and unsociable can leave parents feeling a bit rejected. Furthermore, the fact that they rarely demonstrate a desire for warmth, love, closeness or affection tends to discourage support from parents – and even siblings. Many moms and dads have reported that their Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autistic (HFA) child is often aloof and doesn’t like to be touched or hugged.
As these children enter school, many appear to be more aggressive, hostile and emotionally isolated than their “typical” peers. On the playground, they may be the students who bully their classmates. As teenagers, they tend to be disliked by both peers and educators. Also, they are less emotionally involved with their parents and siblings.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this attachment style is that these children have great difficulty in finding and keeping friends. This is often due to the fact that they lack an understanding of basic social skills, don’t know what to say or do around their peers, withdraw from others and choose to spend time alone rather than run the risk of trying to “connect,” and decide that staying to oneself is the less painful option. Many parents report that their AS or HFA child prefers to play alone. In addition, these children often annoy their peers by butting-in during games, interrupting conversations, rambling on about their special interest or favorite topic, cut in line, make rude comments (with no intention of being rude), and so on.
Some AS and HFA children with an Avoidant/Anxious attachment style are significantly “asocial” (i.e., they lack the motivation to engage in social interaction, have a preference for solitary activities, have limited social expressiveness, have low sensitivity to social cues, emotions, and pragmatic use of language). Asocial tendencies become acutely noticeable in these kids from a young age due to deficits in crucial social development skills (e.g., social and emotional reciprocity, eye-to-eye gaze, gestures, normal facial expressions and body posture, sharing enjoyment and interests with others, etc.). Some of these young people really want to be social, but fail to socialize successfully, which can lead to later withdrawal and asocial behavior – particularly in the teenage years.
Friendship skills come fairly easily to “typical” kids. But, unfortunately for children on the autism spectrum, these skills must be taught. If you have a child with AS or HFA, then you have a child who is socially and emotionally immature. Thus, parents must coach their child in social and friendship skills. In order to find and keep friends, your child must cultivate the skills to BE a “good” friend. Then – and only then – will he or she attract peers and turn the relationship into a friendship.
Here are a few tips for how parents can coach their AS or HFA child on how to be a good friend:
1. Be a good role model. Try to find a lot of opportunities for your child to observe you being nice to someone (e.g., having a casual conversation with a stranger in the line at the grocery).
2. Give your youngster the words and behaviors to enter into - and exit - others’ play group (e.g., “If you want to join in the game that they are playing, then ask ‘can I play too’.”). Also, give him the words and behaviors to include other peers in his play group (e.g., “Would you like to play with us?”).
3. Help your child to be a “behavior observer.” Teach him to pay attention to the actions of other kids as they relate to one another (e.g., at the park, playing a board game, etc.). Then discuss with him what was observed and what things demonstrated good friendship skills (e.g., “Did you notice that Michael is being good about waiting for his turn?”), as well as the things that did NOT demonstrate these skills (e.g., “Did you see Sarah jerk that toy away from Carlie? That’s not being a very good friend.”).
4. Help your child to recognize what traits HE wants in his friends (e.g., someone who shares, plays fair, doesn’t push or hit, doesn’t call people bad names, etc.).
5. Help your youngster to develop the ability to observe the impact of his behavior on others (e.g., “I noticed that when you called your friend ‘stupid’, she looked like her feelings were hurt.).
6. Let your child witness you spending time with YOUR friends.
7. Notice and acknowledge successes. In order to help your youngster see when he is using good friendship skills, comment specifically on what he does in his friendships that shows he cares (e.g., “When Kayla fell down and hurt her leg, you offered to help her up and took her to a chair so she could to sit down. That’s you being a good friend!”).
8. Watch movies and read books about friendship.
9. Role play how to be a good friend.
10. Lastly, post the following (with pictures if possible) in a very prominent place (e.g. refrigerator door):
I am a good friend because...
• I am reliable
• I do kind things for my friends
• I use kind language with my friends
• I like to have fun with my friends
• I help out when my friends are sad or have a problem
• I like spending time with my friends
• I remember my friends’ birthdays
• I like to share with my friends
In a worst case scenario, the AS or HFA child wants so desperately to “fit-in” with his peer group, but fails miserably – time and time again – due to the lack of skills in this area. As a result, he “gives up” and even has a pervasive sense of anxiety about ever trying again. He simply avoids “connecting” to friends as a way to cope with feelings of rejection.
If your best efforts to help your child “be a good friend” fall short, a mental health professional can design a treatment plan that is appropriate for the AS or HFA child who exhibits an Avoidant/Anxious attachment style. Treatments vary, but they will likely include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). If a co-existing condition (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.) is also diagnosed, appropriate medications can be used.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management: Help for Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism