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How to Help Socially-Awkward Children on the Autism Spectrum

“I am the mother of a 10 year old daughter with high functioning autism, recently diagnosed. My question: my daughter is very socially isolated most of the time, by her choosing. Is this a trait of HFA? Is it something I should address? In other words, should I try to get her to be more engaged with others her age? She has basically has no friends at this point.”

Children with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism, are often socially isolated, but are not unaware of the presence of others, even though their approaches may be inappropriate or peculiar (e.g., they may start a long, one-sided conversation about a favorite subject).

Even though ASD children are often self-described "loners," they often express a great interest in making friends. These wishes are invariably thwarted by their awkward approaches and unintentional insensitivity to other's feelings, intentions, and non-literal and implied communications (e.g., signs of boredom, haste to leave, excessive need for privacy, etc.).

These children are often keen (sometimes painfully so) to relate to others, but lack the skills to successfully engage them. Chronically frustrated by their repeated failures to engage others and make friends, some of these kids simply give up and stop trying to be social, preferring to play by themselves.

Regarding the emotional aspects of social transactions, children on the autism spectrum may react inappropriately to – or fail to accurately interpret – the context of a social interaction, often conveying a sense of insensitivity, formality, or disregard to the emotional expressions of others.

Even though they may be able to describe correctly – in a cognitive and formalistic way – people’s emotions, expected intentions and social conventions, they are unable to act on this knowledge in an intuitive and spontaneous way. As a result, they often lose the tempo of the social interaction.

Poor intuition and a lack of natural, spontaneous responses during interactions are accompanied by marked reliance on formalistic rules of behavior and rigid social conventions. This combination is largely responsible for the impression of social naiveté and behavioral rigidity in AS and HFA children.

If your daughter doesn’t know how to successfully engage in social interactions, then this is definitely something to be concerned about. And the sooner you address the matter – the better.  "Social skills training" is the best approach here, which is a general term for instruction conducted in (behavioral) areas that promotes more productive and positive interaction with others.

It is imperative that parents teach social skills to their “special needs” child if he or she is, at present, unable to make or keep friendships. A social skills training program might include (among other things):
  • acceptable ways to resolve conflict with others
  • accepting the consequences of one's behavior
  • approaching others in social acceptable ways
  • appropriate classroom behavior 
  • asking for permission rather than acting
  • attending to task
  • better ways to handle frustration/anger 
  • counting to 10 before reacting
  • distracting oneself to a pleasurable task
  • following directions
  • learning an internal dialog to cool oneself down and reflect upon the best course of action
  • listening
  • making and keeping friends
  • manners and positive interaction with others 
  • seeking attention properly
  • seeking the assistance of the teacher or conflict resolution team
  • sharing toys/materials
  • using words instead of physical contact
  • work habits/academic survival skills

As with the teaching of any subject, begin social skills training with the prerequisite skills (e.g., how to start a conversation), and then move on to the more advanced ones (e.g., how to make eye contact and look interested in what the other person is saying).

•    Anonymous said… I found that my Aspergers son, never made friends at school until a while after his diagnosis, the bullies were dealt with, the teachers made aware and even more so until he found interests outside of school like scouts and cadets, he has even found things he is really good at too since he started these clubs.
•    Anonymous said… How do you get your HFA child to agree to social situations with their peers. We homeschool and I talked to my 11 yr old last night about getting involved in some group activities next school year and she became very upset. She started crying, begging me not to force her to do that and had a meltdown from the anxiety of even thinking about it. I know she needs this, her counselor knows she needs it but she does not agree. If I try to force it she will have a panic attack.
*  For years my son, now 13, had no friends. He had acquaintances but never had play dates or asked to visit people. We put him in hockey and as he saw himself excel and others looking up to him he began to feel like he belonged and was good enough. It took several years for him to feel comfortable enough to interact socially with his teammates and then one day he came home from school amd asked if he could meet some of his 'friends' at the mall. Well, I almost fell off my chair! I was elated! He continues to amaze and surprise me as this little group of 5 or 6 boys have been attending sleepovers, hanging out at the mall, and playing pick-up sports together for about a year now. I am not sure exactly what sparked this change but I feel rhat it definitely has something to do with organized activities. It doesn't have to be a sport.  

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