Helping Children with ASD to Socialize

"How can I help my son (high functioning), who is frequently rejected by his peer group, to learn how to make - and keep -friends? He wants and needs a few friends."

Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) simply do not develop social skills as easily as their “typical” peers. They may earnestly seek friendships and then, having endured rebuffs (if not downright brutality), they retreat to the safety of their own company. Moms and dads need to take the long view of social problems and map out a plan to solve them as carefully and thoughtfully as they would academic or health problems.

There are times when a mother or father must reach out for help, and it is generally the mother who, faced with this task, is going to have to locate the available candidates in the neighborhood and select a youngster who would make an appropriate playmate for her AS or HFA child. (Note: Sex is not an issue here. When kids are young, boys and girls play equally well together.)

It is helpful if the mother of the AS or HFA child approaches the playmate’s parent and explains the situation. She is asking to “borrow” the playmate for a supervised visit in her home. Bribery is acceptable here. She can make it a special occasion (e.g., lunch or a cookie-making party). Snacks may be served first, and then the youngsters may have a short play period. The moment either youngster shows signs of boredom or agitation, the visit should be brought to an end. The first visit needs to end on a happy note if more are to follow.

As these “one-to-one” visits become more commonplace, the mom of the AS or HFA child can structure a simple activity that the kids can handle without her (e.g., blowing soap bubbles or playing with clay). If the activity goes well, the mom should fade into the woodwork for 10 to 20 minutes, staying within earshot so that she can step in if things start to deteriorate.

Eventually, if things continue to progress well, the AS or HFA youngster should be allowed to try a short visit to the playmate’s house. This also must be structured. The mom should accompany her youngster to the playmate’s home and make arrangements to pick up her child at a specified time, suggesting that she be contacted by phone if the visit needs to be terminated early. She should not drop-off the AS/HFA child and head for the Mall. There’s a possibility that the child may panic during his or her first big excursion and decide to go back home – “right now!”

Gradually, less structure is needed. Perhaps the mom will need only to walk her AS or HFA youngster to the corner and watch while her child travels the rest of the distance alone (assuming the playmate lives in the same neighborhood). Finally, the youngster may be allowed to go all by himself or herself, making a phone call to mom upon reaching the destination. Of course, social development will continue until such time that the youngster can come and go to his or her friend’s house as he or she chooses, without the tedious planning.

Eventually, there will come a time to enlarge the AS/HFA youngster’s group, and the experience repeats itself, with mom structuring initial group contacts and standing alert to terminate them if the play session begins to deteriorate. “Group play” holds a greater possibility for problems than one-to-one play. Kids tend to “gang up” and take sides. But this, too, can be circumvented if the mother or father is creative and innovative. Nothing is quite as effective as a quick and attractive change of subject (e.g., “Who wants to help me bake cupcakes?”).

All of the social skills training you have provided for your AS or HFA youngster will carry over into the school environment. And you can be sure that educators will be very grateful. Too often, the “special needs” youngster reaches the classroom totally untutored in social relationships, and the educator is expected to do the job.  
Most educators will react favorably to a request for a conference on social needs. This is the time to explain what you have tried to do at home. You can discuss your youngster’s needs for a special friend. After becoming familiar with the personalities of the youngsters in the class, the educator can arrange to team your youngster with another student of similar disposition and interests in terms of seating, play-pairs, playground-pairs, and even walking to and from school.

Kids with AS and HFA need extra help in developing social skills. Their impulsivity and low-frustration tolerance often lead to poor relationships. They often fail to “tune-in” to the social cues and non-verbal signals in their environment, and thus fail to learn social skills through experience. Also, these kids have difficulty processing information from the social environment and have difficulty with self-expression. But with a little effort and the right tools, moms and dads can equip their “special needs” child with a good set of social skills that will follow him or her into adulthood.


More articles for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

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Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...


Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…


Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…


Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...


Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...
A child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can have difficulty in school because, since he fits in so well, many adults may miss the fact that he has a diagnosis. When these children display symptoms of their disorder, they may be seen as defiant or disruptive.

Click here for the full article...
• Girlouteast said... First let me thank you for this website and its insight. I am a better ASD parent for all the guidance you provide. And right now, social integration is my biggest challenge. I have an 8 year old AS son who is struggling greatly in his search for friendship and with peer rejection. Here is some basic background: We held him back in kindergarten so he is at least 1 year older than most of his peers. This was the right move academically and emotionally, but poses its own set of problems because in many ways (that should benefit him when he is older) he is so observant, oddly intuitive and in different ways more mature than most kids his in his peer or age group. He has had sensory issues since birth when he would rock his head to self-soothe, couldn't tolerate tummy time, poor motor skills and motor planning, food texture intolerance, etc. Of course he is smart, but academic success is mired by his distractibility and he frequently feels like a failure. Even working with him at home, in what we think is a a low-stim setting, it is hard to keep him on task with anything. Though recently he seems to be showing an attention acumen (30 min or more) for drawing and some basic video games. He stims a lot (a variety of whole body stims, hand flapping, hopping and vocal "explosion noise" stims), a need which he is not shy to defend as something that he MUST do anytime, anyplace. So talking to him about others' perception of stimming gets us nowhere. He doesn't seem to care. I admire and fear this quality at the same time.He is typically rule driven, which makes him well-behaved at school. Though at home his rules are a moving target for me and my husband. Even our rules become his rules, once he gives them the spin he thinks he needs. He fits the "little lawyer" description of an AS child.He has an intuitiveness that you would think would make him a great friend, but his AS and lack of theory of mind get in the way. He says no one will play with him at school and everyone tells him to go away. The part of the day at school he hates most is recess. He has a great capacity to misinterpret. He will go so far as to out right lie to defend his misinterpretation. And despite our corrective efforts, I don't think he understands the long term personal risks of being a liar. I have had arranged play dates, but no one reciprocates and invites him to their house and he is aware of and sensitive to that. When I do have play dates at our house, he typically stims a lot and seems to have his own "play" going on in his head. It takes continued effort on a grownups part to draw him into play WITH someone as opposed to his version of parallel play. It is the same way with one-on-one play with me and my husband. He needs to be completely in control and does not like games with rules that are not his. The school is wonderful and they want to initiate a peer-to-peer support system for him, but feel that first-graders might not catch on as well as slightly older kids. This program holds great promise for us, but we may need to wait a little longer to benefit. In the mean time summer is coming. What more can we do for him at home? What can we do to help his social world over the summer? He doesn't seem to be interested in learning social skills from anyone. At home he makes it clear that he was born knowing everything, including how to be a good person and friend. He goes to a social skills group at school but he resents it, believes he is being singled out inappropriately, complains about it constantly, and honestly believes he knows perfectly well how to be a good friend. He is a powerful force. I am afraid that his unique combination of qualities--many of which are exacerbated by his AS--require extreme vigilance. But I don't know what to do? – CML 
• Rod said... Did you ever get the answers you were searching for? I am currently in the same boat as you only I have a 5 year old. You have basically described my 5 year old and all the issues we are currently having with his social behaviour. Please please let me know if you have managed to improve and what you did to get there as I am so so tired and running out of ideas . 
• Anonymous said... My take on the issue is unique. I am not only the parent of a child on the spectrum, I am on the spectrum myself. As such, I cringe a little when I read posts about social rejection. I was socially rejected for years, so it brings up bad memories. But more than that, I am convinced that we go about teaching social skills to HFA/AS kids in entirely the wrong way.First too much emphasis is given to masking; too little to developing basic emotional intelligence and empathy. There’s a myth that these things can’t be learned, so therapists don’t even try to teach them. But through my own (albeit non scientific) research I’m finding that is absolutely not true. There are self-help guides to empathy and emotional intelligence that have been incredibly useful for me.Second, while arranged, closely monitored play dates might work for kids in preschool and kindergarten, the idea falls down for older children. Nobody does arranged play dates in middle or high school, and in my experience that is where social rejection is at its worst and most painful.Third: for people on the Autism spectrum, the world is a painful place. Sensory processing problems can mean that lights and noises are troublesome. Misunderstandings, embarrassment, and social rejection break our trust in people. Being told, as we often are, that this is our fault (or if not our fault, our responsibility to fix) breaks our self esteem. Well-meaning efforts to get your child to socialize with other children could wind up hurting them a lot.So what can you do as a parent for an HFA/AS child who suffers from social rejection? Help him be at peace with himself first and foremost. Help him understand his emotions and accept them. Teach him to be resilient and handle bullying. Help him learn to consider the emotions of others (empathy). Teach him that being alone is OK. Let home be a sanctuary for him: a safe place, free from the pains of the world. Most of all: embrace your HFA/AS child’s special interest. Learn about it; if you can afford to, get him what he needs to study and/or do it. And this is where the socialization can happen: get your HFA child into a camp or after school program for his special interest. Let him be with other kids who share the interest; who he can talk to and interact with on common ground; where the kids are already doing programmed things they enjoy, instead of trying to come up with games to play.I know my comment here runs counter to the advice given above, and I’ll understand if it ruffles some feathers or is taken down. I just feel that, as someone who’s parenting an HFA child, but also who was an HFA child growing up- who’s experienced what your child is experiencing - I should speak up on this issue.

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