Teaching Interpersonal Relationship Skills to Teens on the Spectrum

"My son (high functioning, 15 years old) has a hard time learning from past 'social mistakes' and usually reacts without thinking through to the likely outcomes as he interacts with his peers. Is there a way to help him be a bit more insightful, that is, be able to generalize from one situation to the next and identify cause-and-effect re: the things he says and does around friends and classmates?"

Having positive peer relationships is important for all adolescents. Unfortunately, many teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a hard time making and keeping friends and being accepted within the larger peer group. The perceived “odd behavior” associated with AS and HFA can wreak havoc in an adolescent's attempts to connect with classmates in positive ways.

Not being accepted by others, feeling isolated, different, unlikeable and alone – this is probably the most painful aspect of having AS and HFA. These negative experiences carry long-lasting effects. Positive connections with others are so important. Though teens with AS and HFA desperately want to make friends and be liked by the group, they often just don't know how. The good news is that parents can help their adolescent develop social skills and competencies.

Here are some important tips on how parents can help their “special needs” teenager to develop much needed social skills:

1. Adolescents with AS and HFA tend to have a hard time learning from past experiences. They often react without thinking through consequences. One way to help these young people is to provide immediate and frequent feedback about inappropriate behavior or social miscues. Role-playing can be very helpful to teach, model, and practice positive social skills, as well as ways to respond to challenging situations like bullying.

2. An after-school or weekend job can let a teenager practice some social skills and gain self-confidence. Many AS/HFA teens feel they are doomed to social isolation until they, for example, land a job at McDonald’s. In this case, the teen just might begin talking to classmates who work at – or come into – the restaurant, and then get to know many of them outside of work.

3. As an adolescent reaches young adulthood, friendships are often more complicated, but it is equally important for you to continue to be involved and to facilitate positive peer interactions. The middle school and high school years can be brutal for an adolescent who struggles socially. Even if an adolescent remains unaccepted by the peer group at large, having at least one good friend during these years can often protect him or her from the most damaging effects of ostracism by the peer group.

4. AS and HFA teenagers need planned activities. Although you, as the parent, no longer plan and supervise your teenager as closely as you did back in the day, church organizations, scout groups, and other after-school or community activities can provide structure for the teenager who can’t find a crowd on his or her own. The grown-ups who run such groups are generally committed to involving all the teens. They’ll take the time to talk to a teenager standing on the edge of the group and encourage him or her to join in.

5. Clearly identify and give information to your adolescent about social rules and the behaviors you want to see. Practice these prosocial skills again and again and again. Shape positive behaviors with immediate rewards.

6. Communicate with the school, coaches, and neighborhood parents, so that you know what is going on with your adolescent and with whom your adolescent is spending time. An adolescent's peer group and the characteristics of this group have a strong influence on the young people within the group. A middle or high school age adolescent who has experienced social isolation and repeated rejection and simply wants to "belong" somewhere is often more vulnerable to moving into any peer group that will be accepting – even when that group is a negative influence.

7. Collaborate with your adolescent's school to make sure the classroom environment is as "AS/HFA-friendly" as possible so that your adolescent is better able to manage his or her symptoms. Work together with the school staff on effective behavior management approaches and social skills training.

8. Focus on one or two areas that are most difficult for your adolescent so that (a) the learning process doesn't become too overwhelming and (b) your adolescent is more likely to experience successes. Keep in mind that many teens with AS and HFA have difficulty with the basics like starting and maintaining a conversation or interacting with another individual in a reciprocal manner (e.g., listening, asking about the other person’s ideas or feelings, taking turns in the conversation, showing interest in his or her peer, etc.), negotiating and resolving conflicts as they arise, sharing, maintaining personal space, and even speaking in a normal tone of voice that isn't too monotone.

9. High schools are usually much larger than elementary and middle schools – and the school-wide social scene can be daunting to navigate for AS/HFA teens. Conversation and friendship come more easily among teenagers who have a shared interest. Encourage your teen to sign up for clubs or activities that will put him or her in touch with like-minded peers. An outing with the Spanish club may spark conversation with a peer in a different class.

10. If a teenager is seriously struggling on the social front, his or her "jump start" might be a formal group designed to teach social skills. Such groups are generally led by a psychologist or therapist, and may be sponsored by schools or community centers. The format may involve structured tasks or be an open forum for conversation, with feedback coming from both group leaders and peers.

11. Once an adolescent is labeled by his or her peer group in a negative way because of social skills deficits, it can be very hard to dispel this reputation. In fact, having a negative reputation is perhaps one of the largest obstacles your adolescent may have to overcome socially. Studies have found that the negative peer status of adolescents with AS and HFA is often already established by early-to-middle elementary school years, and this reputation can stick with the adolescent even as he or she begins to make positive changes in social skills. For this reason, it can be helpful for moms and dads to work with their adolescent's teachers, coaches, etc. to try to address these reputational effects.

12. Get involved in groups that foster positive peer relationships and social skills development (e.g., Boy Scouts, Indian Guides, Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, sports teams, etc.). Make sure the group leaders or coaches are familiar with AS and HFA and can create a supportive and positive environment for learning prosocial skills.

13. Research finds that adolescents with AS and HFA tend to be extremely poor monitors of their own social behavior. They often do not have a clear understanding or awareness about social situations and the reactions they provoke in others. For example, they may feel that an interaction with a classmate went well – when it clearly did not. AS and HFA-related difficulties can result in weaknesses in this ability to accurately assess or "read" a social situation, self-evaluate, self-monitor, and adjust as necessary. These skills must be taught directly to your adolescent.

14. Some AS/HFA teenagers do best in smaller groups with some parental monitoring. Although moms and dads are generally viewed as "not cool" to most teenagers, your presence is acceptable in certain situations. A teenager that is reluctant to call a friend to "hang out" might be persuaded to invite a friend or two to a sporting event, if mom gets a few tickets.

15. Establish a positive working relationship with your adolescent's teacher. Share about your adolescent's areas of strength and interests, as well as areas of weaknesses – and strategies you have found to be most helpful in minimizing those weaknesses.

Cultivating friendships during adolescence can be an awesome task for the teenager with AS and HFA. Cliques are hard to break into, and delayed maturity is a roadblock to social success. While some AS/HFA adolescents win friends with their enthusiasm and off-beat humor, others find themselves ostracized, seen by their peers as over-bearing or immature. Parents can NOT structure their teen’s social life as they did through elementary and middle school, but by using the suggestions above, they CAN give the little push that can get their teen started on the path to effective interpersonal relationships.

Tips for teachers with AS/HFA students:

1. Adolescent students often look to their teachers when forming social preferences about their peers. A teacher's warmth, patience, acceptance, and gentle redirection can serve as a model for the peer group and have some effect on a “special needs” student’s social status.

2. Pairing the “special needs” student up with a compassionate "buddy" within the classroom can help facilitate social acceptance.

3. When a “special needs” student has experienced failures at school, it becomes even more important for the student’s teacher to consciously find ways to draw positive attention to him or her. One way to do this is to assign the student special tasks and responsibilities in the presence of the other students in the classroom. Make sure these are responsibilities in which your student can experience success and develop better feelings of self-worth and acceptance within the classroom. Doing this also provides opportunities for the peer group to view your “special needs” student in a positive light and may help to stop the group process of peer rejection.

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

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

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

==> 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

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Help for Educators with Students on the Autism Spectrum

"Hi... I have a high functioning autistic student and need some strategies to help him along given the challenges that accompany the condition. Thanks in advance."

Providing for the needs of children on the spectrum will certainly be one of your greatest challenges as a teacher. Many children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) demonstrate a significant discrepancy between academic achievement and intellectual abilities in one or more of the following areas:
  • written expression
  • spelling
  • reading skills
  • reading comprehension
  • oral expression
  • mathematics reasoning
  • mathematical calculation
  • listening comprehension

Here is a list of some of the traits of children on the autism spectrum. These traits are usually not isolated ones; rather, they appear in varying degrees and amounts. The child may:
  • Find it difficult to stay on task for extended periods of time
  • Have a low-tolerance level and a high-frustration level
  • Have a poor concept of time
  • Have a weak or poor self-esteem
  • Have coordination problems with both large and small muscle groups
  • Have difficulty in following complicated oral directions
  • Have inflexibility of thought
  • Have poor auditory memory
  •  Have poor handwriting skills
  • Have some difficulty in working with others in small or large group settings
  • Be easily confused
  • Be easily distracted
  • Be spontaneous in expression
  • Be verbally demanding
  • Have difficulty controlling emotions

Teaching Aspergers and HFA kids will present you with some unique and distinctive challenges. Not only will these children demand more of your time and patience; so, too, will they require specialized instructional strategies in a structured environment that supports and enhances their learning potential. It’s important to remember that children on the spectrum are not individuals who are incapacitated or unable to learn; rather, they need differentiated instruction tailored to their distinctive learning abilities.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
Children with the disorder may have difficulty building and maintaining satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers. Also, they may develop anxiety associated with personal or school problems, exhibit a pervasive mood of unhappiness under normal circumstances, or show inappropriate types of behavior under normal circumstances. Although you can’t be expected to remediate all the difficulties of these children, you can have a positive impact on their ability to seek solutions and work in concert with those trying to help them.

Consider the following teaching strategies for children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism:

1. These young people do best when the daily program remains consistent with clear expectations. All staff working with the child need to be well-trained and must implement the daily program as consistently as possible.

2. Aspergers and HFA children benefit from a highly structured program (i.e., one in which the sequence of activities and procedures is constant and stable). Consider a varied academic program for all your students, but also think about an internal structure that provides the support that the youngster needs.

3. These children need lots of specific praise. Instead of just saying, “You did well,” or “I like your work,” provide specific praising comments that link the activity directly with the recognition (e.g., “I was really impressed with way you organized the rock collection”).

4. They have difficulty learning abstract terms and concepts. Whenever possible, provide them with concrete objects and events (i.e., items they can see, touch, hear, smell, etc.).

5. Because some children on the spectrum rely on some form of augmentative communication, even if it is only a backup, literacy instruction is very important. If a youngster is literate, he or she will be able to communicate at a much higher level than if the youngster is forced to depend on communications devices that are programmed with limited vocabulary. Literacy instruction should begin at a very early age and continue throughout all school years.

6. Establishing and following a visual schedule eliminates the unexpected and assists Aspergers and HFA children in anticipating and preparing for transitions. Schedules must be visual and kept in the same location at all times. For pre-readers, an object schedule can be used. A tangible object that is related to the class or activity it represents is attached to an icon and the printed word. Other children on the spectrum are able to follow an icon schedule, and strong readers can use a printed schedule. A “check schedule” transition cue is then given to the youngster each time he or she is to transition to a new activity or class.

7. Discuss appropriate classroom behavior at frequent intervals. Don't expect the child to remember in May all the classroom rules that were established in September. Provide “refresher courses” on expected behavior throughout the year.

8. Encourage cooperative learning activities when possible. Invite children of varying abilities to work together on a specific project or toward a common goal. Create a classroom environment in which a true “community of learners” is facilitated and enhanced.

9. Get the child involved in activities with his or her peers – particularly those children who (a) avoid engaging in bullying behavior and (b) serve as good role models for the child. It is important that kids on the spectrum have opportunities to interact with other children who can provide appropriate behavioral guidelines through their actions.

10. Give immediate feedback to these special needs children. They need to see quickly the relationship between what was taught and what was learned.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
11. Kids with the disorder have a great deal of potential to live and work independently as grown-ups. The curriculum should place a strong emphasis on following a functional curriculum. Skills that emphasize daily living skills, community skills, recreation and leisure and employment need to be incorporated into the curriculum. Children in inclusive settings can follow the regular curriculum, but emphasis should be placed on those skills that are the most functional. Functional academics should always include reading and writing, basic math, time and money skills, self-care skills, domestics, recreation and community experiences. Older children on the spectrum should have formal employment opportunities beginning in middle school.

12. Make activities concise and short whenever possible. Long, drawn-out projects are particularly frustrating for the child, especially if he or she is not interested in the subject at hand.

13. Many children with Aspergers and HFA have particular strengths and interests, and these should be taken advantage of in the classroom (e.g., if the youngster demonstrates an interest in trains, he or she should have opportunities to read about trains, write about trains, do math problems about trains, and so on).

14. Most children with Aspergers and HFA have some sensory needs. Some find deep pressure very relaxing. Others need frequent opportunities for movement. It would be helpful if the student had a sensory profile completed by an occupational therapist or other professional trained in sensory integration. Based on the profile, a sensory “diet” can be created and implemented throughout the day.

15. Provide these children with frequent progress checks. Let them know how well they are progressing toward an individual or class goal.

16. Provide opportunities for the child to self-select an activity or two he or she would like to pursue independently. Invite the child to share his or her findings or discoveries with the rest of the class.

17. The classroom should be structured visually to help the youngster clearly see and understand what is expected of him or her. Work stations should be clearly defined. Some HFA children will need three-sided work stations, while others will be able to work in more open areas. Taped outlines on the floor, chairs labeled with the youngster’s name, or using furniture to reduce visual and auditory stimulation are examples of environmental considerations. Work stations also need to be structured. Activities should be designed with strong visual cues so less auditory directions are needed. Each station also needs to clearly show what needs to be done, how much needs to be done, when the youngster will be finished, and what’s next.

18. Most children with HFA need direct instruction in social skills. They do not learn interaction skills by simply being placed in social environments. They need to learn social interaction skills in the same way they learn other academic skills. Using strong visual structure, activities can be designed to teach about identifying emotions in self and others, situations that can cause certain emotions, and how to respond in certain social situations. “Social stories” can be very useful in this endeavor (i.e., short stories written about specific social situations that briefly describe a social situation, how others may respond in this situation, and how the youngster should respond).

19. Visual and auditory stimulation in the classroom should be taken into consideration. Many children with Aspergers and HFA are sensitive to auditory input and have a more difficult time processing auditory stimulation. Their work stations should be placed away from excessive auditory stimulation and away from unnecessary movement.

20. When necessary, plan to repeat instructions or offer information in both written and verbal formats. It is vitally necessary that these kids utilize as many of their five senses as possible.

21. Whenever possible, give the child a sense of responsibility. Put him or her in charge of something (e.g., operating an overhead projector, cleaning the classroom aquarium, re-potting a plant, etc.), and be sure to recognize the effort the child put into completing the assigned task.

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

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

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

==> 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

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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