Isolation in Teens with ASD Level 1: Antisocial Behavior or Self-Preservation?

“Should we be concerned about our 14 year old (high functioning) son’s lack of social interaction and his time spent sitting at home mostly just on his phone.   He refused to play a school sport and is resistant to joining any clubs or volunteering.   Besides the times he is doing things with his dad and the occasional skateboarding, he is mostly just hiding in his room.”

As long as your son doesn’t appear to be depressed, then it would be best to drop it. One thing you need to understand about young people on the autism spectrum is that their “isolation” (i.e., spending lots of time alone) has more to do with self-preservation than being “antisocial.” Let me use the following analogy:

Think of children as having their own internal batteries. Most neurotypical children (i.e., those not on the spectrum) get their batteries recharged by associating with peers. When they are home by themselves for any length of time, they get bored and lonely. In other words, their batteries become run down and need recharging. So, they get out of the house and go find their friends to get recharged.

This situation works the opposite way for most children on the autism spectrum. When they find themselves in social situations – especially for lengthy periods of time in group settings (e.g., school) – their batteries run down. When they are out in the community, they have difficulty paying attention to what others are doing, what others are saying, how they are supposed to respond to others – all the things that keep them from engaging in their special interest (e.g., computer games).

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

Having to tread water in the ocean of social contacts is exhausting for these children. In other words, it totally runs their batteries down. So, they hibernate, disengage, and find time to be alone to engross themselves in their special interest as a way to recharge.

Young people with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism, can become anxious when drained of energy from non-desired activities and lengthy social interactions. Thus, time alone to engage in their special interest is a must – and they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or feel pressured into doing something else instead (unless they are refusing to do their chores or homework, for example). In addition to distracting themselves with their interests, they use “alone time” to calm down and reflect, which helps them to deal with people, tasks and sensory sensitivities much easier.

A child with autism is not necessarily a person who is shy, rather he is a person who is energized by being alone and whose energy is drained by being around other people. The teenager is more concerned with the inner world of the mind. He enjoys thinking, exploring his thoughts and feelings. This is true even if he has good social skills.

Also, when the child on the spectrum wants to be alone, it is not necessarily a sign of depression, rather it means he either needs to recharge his battery, or simply wants the time to be quietly introspective. Being introspective, though, does not mean that he never has conversations; however, those conversations are generally about facts, ideas and concepts – not about what he considers the trivial matters of social small talk.

Even though children and teens on the autism spectrum feel “drained” by social interaction, they feel “energized” by the conversations in their heads.  They dislike interruptions, like to work on complex projects, need to understand why they are doing something, and require silence to concentrate – all of which makes them seem aloof.

These young people are literally physiologically incapable of socializing for extended periods of time, and accordingly, parents should never attempt to “force” their ASD child to be more social (teaching social skills is a constructive manner is certainly necessary though).

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

When interacting with an autistic child, parents and teachers should consider the following:
  • Work with the child to find a compromise. Forcing her to be more social will backfire. So strike some compromises. Usually, if you give her some down time, she’s good for a couple social events each day (e.g., school, girl scouts, or karate class).
  • Let the child recharge. If you’re dealing with a youngster on the autism spectrum and you’re planning one activity after another – it’s going to be torture (e.g., do homework, then do chores, then go shopping, then...). The ASD child is like that old iPhone you’ve got that needs to be recharged several times per day. In the child’s mind, he’s running a lot of applications.
  • Forget the small talk. Mostly, the child lives in her mind, and she thinks about why things happen, or she daydreams. Shallow conversations (e.g., about what happened at school today) are painful. She doesn’t want to have conversations that aren’t going somewhere. Instead, she wants to talk about her passions. So, if you want to engage your otherwise solitary child, talk about her special interests.
  • Give the child some space. He doesn’t want to be mobbed when he gets to his place of security, or for that matter, anywhere else. He wants to transition and get comfortable and then engage. For example, when an ASD child comes home from a long, stressful day at school and is charged with some responsibility immediately – social or otherwise – it’s tough. Give him 30-45 minutes to transition, and you’ll likely avert a meltdown.
  • When possible, provide one-on-one attention rather than insisting on the child’s participation in groups. The child will generally cope much better if he only has to deal with one person at a time.

In summary, your son is literally taking care of himself when he relieves himself from “social-duty” by sitting at home and on his phone. Make sense? Rethink this issue. Put it in the “don’t fight this battle” category. But at the appropriate times, do teach him some pertinent social skills, because he does need to learn how to function in society.

==> Read parents' comments based on the article above.

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

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

  • This is my son. He has no interest at all in being social and does not care what others think. We know he has anxiety, but he's also been diagnosed with depression. I just can't see that - how do I know what is just the autism (not wanting to be with people, saying things in the middle of a fit and not wanting to groom himself) with real depression?
  • This is my son to a T. No interest in being social, doesn't want friends, would rather be on his own at all times. However, when is this a sign of depression, as opposed to just the autism manifesting itself? We know our son has anxiety, but he's also been diagnosed with depression, which I just don't get or see at all. It was based on him being anti-social, saying things when he gets upset that he doesn't really mean, and never wanting to groom himself (he's 13).
  • Where was this post when my son was 7? Or 12? Or 17 even? My son is 20...is awsy at college (YEAH!) But when I call him he's most likely sitting in his dorm watching his phone. He did join clubs because of HIS interests. But seriously this is my son exactly. Oh and he likes to cook. Which is a solitary activity also. Small talk is excruciating! But get him on a subject he likes and He'll ramble on without taking a breath.
  • My son's 18 and wants to be accepted in the group but sits on the fringes near someone he knows because he doesn't have the confidence to join in. While he does need his solitary thinking time, he doesn't like to be alone. When he was alone, he had a breakdown and was hospitalized because he was so depressed and lonely. Parents, please keep looking at what your son likes or might like, and get him involved in his interests further. It is only then he will have a fighting chance at opening up with like-minded people. And I don't know why everyone thinks Asperger boys desire computer games and robotics and are happy playing alone on these for hours. It may be true for some, but please stop with this stereotype. My son plays video games rarely and would rather play a board game with others or ask questions about some subject you would never think of, odd things, but it interests him so I play along. He definitely knows when he's mentally overloaded after school and lets me know so I am nearby but not asking him to talk or do something.

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