Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum to “Fit-In” with Their Peer Group

"My 10 year old HF Autistic/Aspie doesn't have many friends, and when he's home he doesn't have any at all. He likes to be by himself playing video games with his online friends, which is very few as well. This has been the most difficult part of raising a child with autism. It is not made easier by teachers that damage fragile self-esteem and school boards and clubs that are exclusivist. I've found it to be heartbreaking. I often have to remind my son to talk about what other kids want to talk about and to play games others want to play. He often forgets this give-and-take aspect of friendships. He recently lost his best friend. The friend couldn't take the screaming, crying, yelling, controlling, bossiness and lack of reciprocity. My son takes things very literally and thinks with his heart. It is difficult for him to focus on more than one friend. He simply speaks on and on obsessively about his video games. I don't know what to do."

Young people with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) usually want to fit-in and have relationships with friends and classmates, but they just don’t know how to do so effectively. They lack an understanding of conventional social rules and often “appear” to lack empathy. In order to improve socialization, these “special needs” kids need to learn and focus on socialization from an “intellectual” standpoint. Things that come naturally for children without autism need concentration by those with it.

The ability to navigate everyday social interactions presents significant challenges for kids on the autism spectrum. Social situations that present difficulties can range from the fairly simple (e.g., engaging in a conversation with a peer) to the extremely complex (e.g., determining whether a peer who seems friendly is actually harmful in some way). 

Examples of important social skills to be taught to HFA children include (but are not limited to):
  • maintaining appropriate eye contact
  • decoding body language and facial expressions
  • demonstrating empathy
  • determining appropriate behavior for different social situations
  • determining appropriate topics for conversation
  • determining whether someone is trustworthy
  • identifying one's feelings
  • interacting with authority figures
  • learning how to begin and end conversations
  • maintaining appropriate personal space
  • making appropriate choices
  • recognizing the feelings of others
  • resolving conflicts
  • self-monitoring skills
  • social-perception skills
  • taking turns
  • understanding gestures
  • understanding community norms

Watch this video on teaching social skills: 

Here are some crucial strategies that parents and teachers can employ that will assist the child on the autism spectrum in finding – and maintaining – successful interpersonal relationships with others:

Tips for Parents:

1. Work with a speech pathologist that will evaluate and offer help with language. Even though your HFA youngster may speak perfectly, learning “social language” is often necessary. Learning eye contact from a speech pathologist, for example, is an important skill.

2. Work with a psychologist or counselor to teach and improve social skills. Therapies often teach children on the spectrum to recognize potential problem situations. In addition, these professionals teach and practice strategies with “special needs” children so they can handle most challenging situations.

3. Utilize role-play at home prior to any type of excursion. Role-play allows the child to image all of the various scenarios that could happen. Then, teach strategies for dealing with situations that are difficult.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

4. Reduce anxiety for your child whenever possible. Keep the rest of his life structured and organized, and ensure that the environment is a positive and rewarding one. This allows him to focus on social interactions without concern about other difficulties.

5. In school and other social situations, HFA children will perform best with a parent's aid. Find a friend for your child at school that he knows and can work with. Your youngster may eventually learn from the friend regarding “how to interact.”

6. Help your child get involved in sports and extracurricular activities. Through practice, kids and teens on the spectrum can learn to be socially positive.

7. Encourage socialization from a young age by bringing other kids into your home. With supervision, allow play dates to be teaching moments. For example, the parent can say something like, "See how Michael has his hand outstretched? That means he wants to say hello with a handshake. Shake his hand."

8. During the teenage years, dating is often difficult. Encourage adolescents to go out with friends and to date. It may take practice, but they will learn social skills with each outing.

9. Communicate with pictures. To teach HFA children to be social, incorporate picture stories into their daily lives. This is important for difficult subjects (e.g., sharing and communicating feelings). The stories should communicate how to handle the situation.

10. Use games or role-play to focus on the viewpoint of another person. This can include simply looking at pictures of children or adults interacting or working together or sharing some activity, and asking what is happening or what a given individual is doing, and what he may be thinking.

11. Use a video of a situation to illustrate behavior that is inappropriate in, for example, causing irritation to other children. Then discuss why. Also, make a video of the child himself and discuss where there are incidents of good social behaviors.

12. Provide direct advice about when and for how long your child may go on about a favorite topic, perhaps with the use of a signal by which to indicate when to stop (or not to start). If obsessive talking appears to mask some anxiety, seek to identify its source or teach general relaxation techniques. Also, provide positive feedback when your child is not talking incessantly about his given topic of interest.

13. Provide direct instruction of social rules or conventions (e.g., how to greet somebody, how to initiate a conversation, taking turns in a conversation, maintaining appropriate eye contact, when someone is joking, how to recognize how someone else is feeling, etc.).

14. Create a series of cartoon faces with clearly drawn expressions indicating anxiety, anger, sadness, surprise, etc. Then have your HFA child identify the various feelings and guess what caused them.

15. Model social skills for your child to observe, or view and discuss a video-tape of two people talking or playing, including reference to any non-verbal messages which can be discerned.

1. The establishment of a "buddy" system or a system where the HFA student is encouraged to observe how other students behave in particular situations is helpful.

2. Provide specific and structured activities for the “special needs” student that are to be shared with one or two selected classmates. These can range from some jobs to be completed in the school during break or lunch time, games involving turn-taking, or tasks or mini-projects to be completed on the computer.

3. Provide direct teaching of what to do (or what not to do) in certain challenging situations (e.g., when the teacher is irritated either with the HFA student – or with the entire group).

4. Provide a visual timetable plus bulletins of any innovations so there is no uncertainty about the day's routine.

5. Make use of the "Circles of Friends" approach designed to identify (social) difficulties, and to set targets and strategies by which other students in the class can be helpful and supportive, with the long term aim of increasing social integration and reducing anxiety.

6. In the classroom setting, instructions should be very precise with no opportunity to misunderstand what is expected. It may be necessary to follow-up group instructions with individual instructions rather than assuming that the HFA student has understood what is needed or can learn "incidentally" from watching what other students do.

7. In a group setting, adopt the “circle-time” strategy of limiting verbal contributions to whoever is in possession of some object (while ensuring that the object circulates fairly among the whole group).

8. Identify particular skills in the HFA student and invite him to offer some help to another student who is less advanced (e.g., with the use of the computer).

9. Help your HFA student to recognize his symptoms of distress with a "script" by which to try relaxation strategies, or have in place a system where it is acceptable for the student briefly to remove himself from the class as necessary.

10. Have the autistic student’s peers model social skills. A “buddy” can also be encouraged to be the partner of the autistic student in games, showing how to play and offering or seeking help if he is teased.

11. Have a regular time slot for support from an adult in terms of feedback concerning (social) behavior, discussing what is going well and less well, and why – and enabling the “special needs” student to express concerns or versions of events.

12. Encourage participation in school clubs or organized/structured activities during the lunchtime.

13. Allow some practice of talking at a reasonable volume and pace with an agreed signal to be given if it is too loud or fast, or tape-record the student’s speech so that he can evaluate the volume and pace himself.

14. Show the HFA or AS student – and his classmates – a hand signal that the classmates can use when they are tired of listening to him talk about his topic of interest. Also, agree to a later time and place for responding to the autistic student’s repeated questioning about a particular topic of interest.

15. A clarity and explicitness of rules in the classroom to minimize uncertainty and to provide the basis for tangible rewards should be implemented.

Having friends provides support and promotes mental health and well-being. Friendships are also very important for social and emotional development. Through friendships, kids learn how to relate to others. They develop social skills as they teach each other how to be good friends. Young people on the autism spectrum who have friends are more likely to be self-confident and perform better academically. When these “special needs” kids have difficulty making friends or keeping them, it often leads to feeling lonely and unhappy with themselves. Feeling rejected by others often leads to significant distress, too.

Parents and teachers have important roles to play in helping their HFA youngster develop friendship skills. They set examples for how the youngster can manage relationships. They can also act as coaches, teaching the child helpful social skills and talking through friendship issues to help with problem solving.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said… A puppy or kitty it a frog whatever interests him. Don't try to change him.
•    Anonymous said… Are there social skills groups on your area?
•    Anonymous said… As a parent, this is the hardest part for me. It doesn't seem to bother my 15 year old, who perceives himself as having friends. I worry about what's going to happen when he's out of HS and has less social opportunities.
•    Anonymous said… Following...we're going through the same thing
•    Anonymous said… Get in touch with the national autistic society they have all the details of local support groups.
•    Anonymous said… He sounds just like my son.He is obsessed over his video games.
•    Anonymous said… I can so relate!
•    Anonymous said… I know it's hard to deal with my daughter has the same issues and yes the school is making things very hard and I am ready to get a lawyer and say the he'll with it.
•    Anonymous said… I think we all have to face reality that our asd kids reality will not ever be ours and accept that. aspies have organized groups now online etc and that will grow so that will have friendships of like minded people. For lower functioning kods....i just dont know. It will take the parents to develop a group or vision of what is needed and provide it.
•    Anonymous said… I understand ur frustration.
•    Anonymous said… I'm less worried about with my kids as I was the same. If they socialise or even go to clubs, great, but otherwise they need the head space to recover from the very social aspects of school. A few good friends is better than actives of acquaintances anyway.
•    Anonymous said… It is very difficult my 13 year old son says his xbox and online friends are his social life and when he has to go out of the house we are ruining is social life he will say some days he can be compliant some days he can be cross with us but mostly moans about when we going home etc ... the computer games are like thier way of escape and relaxing like us wanting to have that glass of wine or go 4 that walk whatever people do to relax .a balance is not always possible and every autistic person is different in how much they can cope with outside the computer world my son likes educational historical places so days out at places of interest can gage him for a while but the xbox will always be mentioned
•    Anonymous said… Just let him be himself. He's safe playing his games but maybe be his best friend and take him out just you and him for walks in nature. Maybe get him a pet to care for. Pets help the aspire child connect to feelings and it brings out something golden in these kids.
•    Anonymous said… Limiting the screen time, balancing it with a more neutral family occasion, then arranging a play date (at least try) would work a bit.
•    Anonymous said… My 7 year old wants a friend so bad. He has a sister that is 20 months older that really is his only and best friend. He is so social, but typically dominates conversation with what he is interested in.
•    Anonymous said… My boy is the same, I chose home schooling and I've never looked back, he has improved so much in the last two years and is now allowed to be himself.
•    Anonymous said… My son is 19 today. He's had one friend all his life. One. And he didn't even go to the same school. Somehow, when he hit 17, he started making more friends but I never worried about it. One was all he needed!
•    Anonymous said… So for all of those parents worried about their kids obsession it's video games, it is a serious problem for these teens. They get addicted to the virtual worlds they play in. They are much more sensitive and susceptible and we had to take our son completely off of it and it was very hard at first with his behavior getting aggressive but it is worth it.  😉
•    Anonymous said… So hard to let them do the computer and online games...yet you understand it is a part of them.
•    Anonymous said… That's my boy too!
•    Anonymous said… The behavior is so hard to deal with...i need a support group for parents. Can anyone direct me on how to find one?
•    Anonymous said… We have the same problem but the lifeline for us has been at the Comic book store where they run a Pokemon club, they're all the same and he fits right in! Try it  😊
•    Anonymous said… You Re not alone ! All my son wants to do.

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