HFA Students and Social Problems in the Classroom: Tips for Teachers

“I’m a 5th grade teacher (Baltimore area) with a challenging 10 year old student diagnosed on the high functioning end of autism. My question is what are some of the ‘social areas’ these special needs students struggle in, and how can I tailor my approach to make accommodations for those areas?”

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s have several important areas of challenge that can negatively impact their social competence. 

Here are the main ones:
  • usually have a desire to be part of the social world, but lack the skills to do so
  • use monotone or stilted, unnatural tone of voice
  • use inappropriate gaze and body language
  • take expressions literally
  • over-eagerness to answer questions or participate in classroom activities
  • often talk at people instead of to them
  • often avoid eye contact
  • misinterpret social cues
  • may not like physical contact
  • may “appear” egocentric
  • lack of control of facial expression
  • inability to grasp implied meanings
  • have well-developed speech but poor communication
  • exhibit poor ability to initiate and sustain conversation
  • do not understand jokes, irony or metaphors
  • constant reiteration of facts and figures related to subjects that interest them
  • clumsiness
  • can’t judge "social distance"
  • are sometimes labeled "little professor" because speaking style is so adult-like and pedantic
  • are much younger emotionally than their “typical” peers
  • are easily taken advantage of (do not perceive that others sometimes lie or trick them)
  • an inability to understand complex rules of social interaction

Here are a few suggestions to implement that may help your HFA student with some of the social-skills deficits he or she encounters:

1. Perhaps first and foremost, protect the youngster from bullying and teasing. HFA students often benefit from a "buddy system." Thus, you could educate a sensitive classmate about the situation of your HFA student and seat them next to each other. The classmate could look out for the “special needs” student on the bus, during recess, in the hallways, etc., as well as attempt to include him or her in school activities.

2. Most children on the autism spectrum want friends, but simply do not know how to interact. Therefore, they should be taught how to react to social cues and be given repertoires of responses to use in various social situations. Put simply, teach your HFA student what to say and how to say it. Model two-way interactions, and let him or her role-play. The social judgment of these young people improves only after they have been taught rules that others pick up intuitively.

3. Kids on the spectrum tend to be reclusive. Thus, it would be helpful to foster involvement with others. Encourage active socialization and limit time spent in isolated pursuit of interests (e.g., a teacher's aide seated at the lunch table could actively encourage the youngster to participate in the conversation of his or her peers).

4. Praise classmates when they treat your HFA student with compassion (this may prevent scapegoating while promoting empathy and tolerance).

5. Emphasize the proficient academic skills of the HFA youngster by creating cooperative learning situations in which his or her reading skills, vocabulary, memory, etc. will be viewed as an asset by peers, thereby engendering acceptance.

6. Although they lack personal understanding of the emotions of others, kids on the spectrum can learn the correct way to respond. When they have been unintentionally insulting, tactless or insensitive, it must be explained to them why the response was inappropriate and what response would have been correct. Children with HFA must learn social skills intellectually due to the fact that they lack social instinct and intuition.

Many of the traits of HFA can be "masked" by average to above average IQ scores. This can result in the student being misunderstood by teachers. They may presume that he or she is capable of more than is being produced. Lack of understanding of the HFA student in this way can significantly impede the desire of teachers to search for strategies useful in overcoming the hindrances caused by the disorder.

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