How to Help Teachers Understand Your HFA or AS Child’s Social Difficulties

“What are some of the social problems that children with high functioning autism have? I’d like to share them with my child’s (age 7) teacher to help her understand him better. Currently, she thinks he ‘just needs to be more cooperative and attentive’. I wish it were that easy!”

High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) is first and foremost a social disorder. Young people on the autism spectrum are not only socially isolated, but also demonstrate an abnormal type of social interaction that can’t be explained by other factors (e.g., shyness, short attention span, defiance, aggressive behavior, etc.).

Children with HFA and AS are known to lack the motivation to interact with others. But their social difficulties frequently stem from a lack of knowledge in initiating and responding in various situations and under variable conditions (e.g., the child may appear odd because of his continuous insistence on sharing with peers an obsessive interest in vacuum cleaners, despite their displays of apathy for this “weird” topic).

Social difficulties may range from social withdrawal and detachment to unskilled social interactions. Nonetheless, even within this broad range, children on the spectrum may be socially awkward, emotionally blunted, self-centered, inflexible, and have difficulty in understanding nonverbal social cues.

Kids with HFA and AS may be able to infer the meaning of facial expressions and match events with facial expression, but the difficulty arises when dealing with the simultaneous presentation of facial, voice, body, and situational cues. Thus, even when they actively try to seek-out others, they encounter social isolation because of their lack of understanding of the rules of social behavior (e.g., eye contact, proximity to others, gestures, posture, etc.).

Students on the autism spectrum are able to engage in routine social interactions (e.g., basic greetings) without being able to engage in extended interactions or reciprocal conversations. Parents often describe their “special needs” child as lacking an awareness of social standards and protocol, lacking common sense, tending to misinterpret subtle social prompts, cues, and unspoken messages, and displaying a variety of socially unaccepted behaviors.

Kids with HFA and AS typically display emotional vulnerability and anxiety (e.g., they may become upset if they think others are invading their space or when they are in unpredictable or new social situations). However, in contrast to most of their “typical” peers, kids on the spectrum often do not reveal their anxiety through voice tone, overt agitation, etc. 

As a result, they may escalate to a point of crisis because of peers’ unawareness of their discomfort – along with their own inability to predict, control, and manage uncomfortable situations. (As a side note, the HFA or AS child is a relatively easy target for peers who are prone to teasing and bullying others.)

While they are known by others for their lack of social awareness, many children with HFA and AS themselves are aware that they are different from their peers. Consequently, problems with self-esteem are common. These problems often are particularly significant during adolescence and young adulthood.

Variable social situations make it difficult for kids on the spectrum to apply social rules in a rigid and consistent way. Social rules vary with circumstances (i.e., there are no inflexible and universal social conventions and rules). This lack of social consistency is especially confusing for children with HFA and AS. 

They often painfully discover that interactions that may be tolerated - or even reinforced - in one setting are rejected or punished in others (e.g., one 4th grader with HFA could not understand why his calling Mrs. Potts (his teacher) "Mrs. Potty" in the restroom was funny to his peers, while saying this in the classroom (in the presence of Mrs. Potts) got him in trouble.

Children on the autism spectrum do not acquire greater social awareness and skill merely as a function of age. In the real world, ALL children are required to use increasingly sophisticated social skills and to interpret ever more subtle social nuances as they progress through school. Consequently, children diagnosed with HFA or AS may find themselves more and more in conflict with prevailing social norms as they move through adolescence and into young adulthood. 

As a result of these norms - and the experiences that follow – kids on the spectrum are vulnerable to developing a variety of problems (e.g., depression and anxiety may appear at this time, they experience a continuing inability to effectively interact with peers as well as an increased discomfort and anxiety in social situations).

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