Social Skills Training for Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum

What’s the best thing that can happen to a teenager with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism? Without a doubt, the answer is: a good dose of social skills training!

One of the most significant problems for teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is difficulty in social interaction. This difficulty is made even more significant due to problems with speech and language. But the disorder also seems to create problems with "mind reading" (i.e., knowing what another person might be thinking or feeling).

“Typical” teens can observe others and guess (through a combination of tone and body language) what's "really" going on in one of their peers. But without help and training, Aspergers and HFA teens will struggle in this area. This "mind blindness" can lead even the highest-functioning teen to make social blunders that cause all kinds of problems. Without knowing why, a teen with the disorder can hurt feelings, ask inappropriate questions, act oddly or generally open themselves up to hostility, teasing, bullying and isolation.

In general, social skills therapists are social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and speech/language therapists who specialize in working with children and teens on the spectrum. Over time, they have developed or learned techniques to build social interaction skills ranging from basic skills (e.g., making eye contact) to complex and subtle skills (e.g., asking for a date).

Since there is no official certification for social skills therapists, techniques vary. In a school setting, social skills therapy may consist of group activities (e.g., games and conversation) with Aspergers and HFA teens and their typically developing peers. Groups may be overseen by school psychologists or social workers, and may be held in the classroom, lunchroom or playground.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Out-of-school social skills groups are similar in style, but are paid for privately. Teens are grouped by age and ability, and may make use of specific social skills curricula as developed by well-established practitioners of social skills therapy.

Drama therapy, a variation of social skills therapy, has the potential to be both fun and educational. Video modeling, video critiques of interactions, group therapy and other approaches may also be available in your area, and are especially appropriate for teens on the autism spectrum. Typical cognitive therapy with a psychologist or psychiatrist may also be helpful.

In theory, social skills therapy will provide these teens with the ability to converse, share, play and work with their typical peers. In an ideal world, such therapy will allow these teens to become almost indistinguishable from their typical peers.

Since there is no official certification for social skills therapists, it can be a challenge to find a qualified practitioner. Most of the best social skills therapists are not so much trained as born. In other words, they happen to be very talented therapists in their own field, with an innate understanding of how to help Aspergers and HFA children and teens comprehend 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/her an ideal therapist. The best way to decide if a therapist is right for your teenager is to attend a few sessions.

Most school programs for special needs teens include social skills therapy. There is no guarantee that the facilitator running those programs has specific training in - or experience with - running such programs, so it may be worth your time to inquire into just who is offering such programs – and why they were chosen to do so. It's not at all unusual for a school psychologist or social worker to run social skills programs with relatively little training or background. So beware!

Social skills learning and therapy groups are offered to help teens on the spectrum who have difficulty making and keeping friends, coping with frustration and aggression, dealing with loneliness, and much more. These groups are good learning environments for Aspergers and HFA adults too.

Meeting in social skills groups with others with whom they have no past experience allows these young people to learn freely, without labels or expectations, thus offering relief from rejection and the anxiety of having to live up to a social image. Shedding labels and sharing experiences with others is liberating and builds a sense of peer-acceptance. A sense of bonding results from positive experiences in relationship.

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

The best way to learn a skill is to first have a reason for learning it, then to have it modeled for you, and finally to try it out on your own. Social skills therapy groups provide Aspergers and HFA teens with models for thinking and problem-solving in this way. Exposure to new ways of thinking about their problems and being aware of social attitudes leads to self and peer-acceptance. For example, through learning to recognize fear and anger beneath a situation and being taught skills, more appropriate responses become obvious and workable. Seeing how one's choices affect others also leads to improved ability to recognize “cause and effect” and being able to see oneself in context. Above all, the experience of success begins to ground more confidence in dealing with conflict situations.

It is difficult for Aspergers and HFA teens to self-reflect on actions and exercise self-control. When these teens are anxious or overly stimulated, impulsivity can become more exaggerated. In fact, structure can help focus and control, but often at the expense of the opportunity for feedback. Recognizing difficulty with impulse control, or what to do to acquire it, or how to avoid the traps of social labels, can be difficult and exhausting without feedback. Group learning can be more effective for gaining self-control because it offers a different kind of interactive learning in a less demanding environment. Learning respect for personal boundaries, adjusting to limits, and safe exploration of social problem solving are much more likely to happen in a small therapy group.

When with an autism spectrum disorder teens are taught more appropriate strategies in place of those that don't work, the effect can be very liberating. Some of the skills learned in the past really worked at some point, until the strategies got worn out due to the complexity of situations. Those that are updated are remembered because it helps to cope better. Trial and error can be effective. Practice makes perfect, and encouragement is vital to discovering new skills. A teenager’s sense of confidence will grow in leaps and bounds with the experience of “power of informed choice” working for him/her. Applying effective strategies to otherwise painful situations in a safe environment can elicit feelings of acceptance, satisfaction, success and harmony.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Anonymous said...
Thank you very much - I've been struggling with this, My 18 year old son has just started his Foundation in Science at a local university. This is his first experience being on his own. He's really struggling socially.

Anonymous said...
AWW that is great, I love my Aspie, he's only 7 but we are making really great strides

Anonymous said...
My son's school has a whole program for autistic/asperger's children for social skills training. I'll be glad when he starts it in the fall. He is going into third grade. Hoping it helps before middle school.

Social Skills Success said...
As a social skills coach, I find that getting parents to help practice skills at home is the number one way to make sure teens learn and generalize their new skills! Even with our aspie teens (and I have two), parents matter so much! Thank you for the informative article!

Anonymous said...
LB goes to a therapist weekly for social skills and it's made a HUGE difference this past year. The skills need to be taught to Aspie kids since they don't come naturally. It's a continuous process and something I'm glad we've pursued. What she was getting at school wasn't enough.

TuesdaiGirl said...
I am looking for a good social skills therapist for my daughter who is 12. Not diagnosed but we have been told by several psychiatrist that she needs social skills training. We are
in north Atlanta suburbs.

Anonymous said...
Although my son has never been diagnosed with any disorder I believe he had ADHD/Asperger’s tendencies. He is now 17, and we have never known where to turn for social training. I have literally spent probably thousands of hours over the years searching out help on the internet, from which I have learned a lot. I have been wanting to go on a gluten free diet for years and haven’t implemented it. My husband thinks it is impossible because we have very both have very demanding jobs and 3 children with various activities that make it difficult to eat at home every day. We try to eat at home at least 4 days a week, but not every day. We don’t live in a metropolitan area, so we don’t have a lot of choices for eating out “healthy”. I still plan on giving it a try next week. His main issues are: lack of social skills, can do math but does not retain the concepts which is hard since math builds, very forgetful, limited interests, easily frustrated(mostly with family), sleep issues(I have given melatonin but stopped due to reading some negative information about it), I have thought about buying a weighted blanket which might be helpful.

My son has managed (with a lot of help from his dad and I)to do very well in school over the years. His biggest struggle is in math. He is a senior and has a 3.38 GPA and scored 22 on the ACT so far. He would have scored higher on the ACT but the math portion brings his cumulative down. His sub-score in Reading was a 31. He will graduate with an advanced academic diploma and has taken numberous honors classes. He also struggles socially and basically has never had a close friend other than a boy that I won’t let him be friends with because he has issues also and his parents won’t address them(very poor hygiene and obsessed with video games). I hated to tell my son he couldn’t go to this boy’s house, but I didn’t want my son to model these behaviors. Most people just think our son is very shy and not outgoing like his siblings. In reality, he has resorted to being quiet because he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing and be made fun of which he has experienced in the past. To make matters worse, he is only 5’5” tall and I only recently got my pediatrician to send him to an endocrinologist to see if we could do anything to change this. They didn’t really think they would have any treatment for him at his age. My son is very kind and compassionate, but misunderstood and therefore has no friends.

Unknown said...
How can I find this outside of school for my son? I'm am a mother yes, but son is a teenager and I know nothing. So he needs someone else to show/tell him everything that I already do.

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