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Reasons Behind “Impaired Social Interaction” in Aspergers and HFA Kids

"Why does our child (with high functioning autism) have such difficulty understanding the feelings of others? He can be terribly cruel at times, which really hurts his younger brothers' feelings. Yet he seems to have all the compassion in the world for our 2 dogs."

You're referring to a social-skills deficit here. There are various theories as to why children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have impaired social skills. Some researchers suggest that poor social skills may be caused by:
  • weakness or absence of the social gaze response
  • sensory distractions, which prevent the child from concentrating on social issues
  • memory dysfunction (e.g., deficits in memory for faces and common social scenes), which prevent the child from remembering other people or events
  • failure to develop a “theory of mind,” which prevents the child from understanding what other people are thinking or feeling
  • failure of affective processing

The relationship between social interactions and proper social responses are flexible, context-dependent, and generalize-able. For example, general (and unspoken) “social rules” are suppose to govern how a child responds when he or she meets someone for the first time, but the specifics of the meeting are never precise and depend on the context (e.g., whether the new acquaintance is a neighbor, classmate, teacher, etc.).

Similarly, when family members get together for a family reunion, handshakes, hugs and kisses are bound to happen, but exactly how tight a hug will be, or exactly where a kiss in planted, is variable and context-dependent.

These subtle nuances in relationships are difficult for the child with AS and HFA to learn. The child’s style of learning is such that he or she will try to store each social experience by rote memory.  A strong aptitude for rote memory is a typical cognitive tendency among kids on the autism spectrum. For example, these young people may demonstrate the ability to repeat the script of an entire video verbatim or recall specific dates. However, this capacity for strong rote memory may also be accompanied by challenges in simple recall. For example, it may be difficult for the youngster to recall the activity he has just completed or the meal he just ate, although he is able to name all the streets in his neighborhood.

While rote memory helps one retain data and facts, it doesn’t help with gauging the give-and-take aspects of social interactions.  Without extracting complex social cues from multi-dimensional social interactions, the AS/HFA child can’t effectively use the stored information to generalize to new, related social situations. The best this child can do is to follow rigidly the memory entry that best matches the current situation as a script. Temple Grandin, an autistic author, wrote about how she handled social situations better as she got older, because she accumulated more examples in her “visual library” and could find a better match to each social situation.

By observing his teacher’s behavior (called “gaze attention”), a neurotypical (non-autistic) student is usually able to predict the teacher's intentions (i.e., what the teacher is going to do next). As a result, the student may get a pencil and piece of paper from his desk, raise his hand to ask a question, open a certain textbook, or simply sit quietly without taking any action. Exactly what will happen is variable and depends on the context (e.g., whether the teacher is writing something on the blackboard, is looking at the group of students with her arms crossed, or has moved from her desk to the classroom exit). Conversely, the AS/HFA student (by virtue of a rote learning style) attempts to store each instance separately and precisely and fails to extract the ambiguous, context-dependent relationship between the teacher’s body language and her intention.

Compared to “typical” children, AS and HFA children look at other people’s faces (especially the eyes) much less frequently (called “gaze aversion”). One reason for their gaze aversion is that the relationship between facial expression and the other person’s feelings/motives/etc. is hard for AS and HFA children to comprehend. If the AS/HFA child can’t glean non-verbal information provided in facial expressions, then he or she will be less interested in looking at the faces of others, which further reduces his or her chance of gleaning important non-verbal information in social interactions. Another reason for gaze aversion is that the human face is a complex, dynamic stimulus that may overload the “sensory sensitive” AS/HFA child who is trying to “read” another person’s facial expressions.

How Parents and Teachers Can Help—

1. Be aware of times when the AS or HFA youngster is more likely to say something inappropriate about other people and cue (remind) the youngster about positive behavior. The supermarket, doctor’s office and other public areas are prime areas where kids with AS and HFA will blurt out something inappropriate, and often at loud volume.

2. Develop social interaction skills (e.g., turn taking, sitting quietly and waiting) through playing games like Snakes and Ladders, card games, etc.

3. Draw the youngster’s attention to the use of facial expressions, gesture, voice inflection and proximity in social interaction and explain the attitudes and meanings these convey. This could be done through drama and role play.

4. Encourage the child to join in any groups or clubs at the school that relate to an area of interest. This will provide opportunities for interaction with classmates. Point out children in the class who are good role models so that the AS/HFA child can see how to behave. This is important as kids on the spectrum can be easily led astray.

5. Help the youngster become aware that other people have feelings, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that may be different to his own.

6. Improving social understanding will help AS and HFA children become more aware of direct and indirect means of communication, improving relationships with classmates and school staff.

7. Children with AS and HFA need to be specifically taught social skills. They do not acquire these naturally by being in a social environment.

8. For younger kids, role play with dolls and puppets can help them develop an awareness of social rules (e.g., when and how to say ‘sorry’ and to understand the effect of his actions on others).

9. Social stories are crucial to help teach the youngster about the feelings of others and appropriate things to say to people. You can create social stories for any situation tailored to the youngster’s needs.

10. The youngster needs to be made aware that he is being addressed when the teacher speaks to ‘everyone’ to enable him to understand group instructions.

11. Video is often very appealing to kids with AS and HFA, and can be a good medium for teaching.

12. Some suggested topics to improve social understanding include the following:
  • using and interpreting body language, facial expression, gestures
  • understanding words and phrases that have more than one meaning
  • understanding metaphors and idioms
  • understanding inference and implied meaning
  • recognizing that other people have feelings, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that may be different to their own
  • developing social interaction skills (e.g., turn taking and waiting)
  • developing self-awareness

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Hyper- and Hypo-sensitivity in Children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism

"We have a recently diagnosed child on the autism spectrum. Is it common for these children to be overly-sensitive in some areas - and severely under-sensitive in others? For example, our daughter absolutely refuses to be hugged by anyone (other than myself on occasion), yet we discovered she had fractured a bone in her wrist - but she didn't show any discomfort whatsoever."

Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often fluctuate between hyper-sensitivity (i.e., being overly sensitive) and hypo-sensitivity (i.e., a lack of sensitivity) to unexpected stimuli in the environment. For example, at one moment a touch or noise may make the child jump or scream, while at another moment she may not respond when parents call her name – or she may act as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist.

For neurotypical children (i.e., those without a spectrum disorder), unexpected stimuli is relatively predictable and anticipated. For example, they expect a loud noise when seeing someone using a hammer, but not when a pillow falls on the floor. They anticipate a hug or a kiss when a grandparent is approaching them with open arms.

Even when they don’t notice someone walking up to their front door, the first knock may startle them, but the subsequent knocks don’t, because they anticipate more than one knock. When their mother starts the vacuum cleaner, the noise may surprise them, but they quickly predict that the noise will persist for a while, and they adapt to it. If it is not raining now, they don’t expect rain soon. Thus, for neurotypical children, the world is reasonably predictable – particularly in the near future punctuated only by brief surprises.

In contrast, many children with AS and HFA have difficulty with prediction and anticipation. To these young people, a loving hug by grandma may feel like a shocking squeeze, and noise from otherwise routine events may be largely unexpected and frightening. As a result, they are frequently startled by stimuli in the environment and they overreact. The AS/HFA child’s weak predictive ability makes many daily events very stressful, which contributes to his or her high level of social anxiety. This explains hyper-sensitivity.

 As a defense against constant surprises from the world, as well as against overwhelming sensory stimulation and the inability to (a) employ “selective attention” (i.e., focusing on one thing at a time) and (b) “filtering” (i.e., ignoring certain environmental stimuli), AS and HFA children may “suppress” stimuli for long periods of time (i.e., they shut it out and retreat into a world of their own, unaffected by all that goes on around them). This explains hypo-sensitivity.

Hyper-sensitivity primarily occurs due to poor prediction. The AS and HFA child often over-reacts to unexpected loud noises or moving objects. But, it is not the noise or motion itself that is frightening. The youngster himself can happily make as great a noise as any that he is afraid of, and he can move objects about to his heart's desire. He may not want his grandmother to touch him, but he will go and touch her. This is because “self-generated” noise and “self-initiated” touch are relatively more predictable and thus less surprising.

In additional to unwanted surprises, “poor adaptive adjustment” also contributes to the AS and HFA child’s hyper-sensitivity to constant (non-surprising) stimuli (e.g., background noise in an airplane, florescent lighting in the classroom, skin pressure from clothes, etc.). Neurotypical children adapt to such stimuli because they can predict their persistence, and as a result they are able to ignore the stimuli. This “adapting and ignoring” skill helps neurotypical children to label background stimulations as “unimportant.”

When a youngster receives a diagnosed of AS or HFA, educational priorities often focus on behavioral interventions aimed at development of social and communicative skills, while the youngster’s sensory needs are often ignored. As paradoxical as it seems, sometimes AS and HFA kids benefit from being misdiagnosed as having visual and/or auditory impairments. Being placed into an environment where their sensory difficulties are addressed may help these young people to respond to social and communication interventions better than if they were placed into a typical environment where the main emphasis is only on training in social/communicative skills.

AS and HFA children should be protected from painful environmental stimuli. For example, in the case of visual/auditory hyper-sensitivity, visual and auditory distractions should be kept to a minimum. Tactile hyper-sensitivities should be addressed by choosing the clothes and fabrics the youngster can tolerate. If parents or teachers can’t hear, see or smell some stimuli, it doesn’t mean that the AS/HFA youngster is being “ridiculous” if distressed by “nothing at sight.”

Parents and teachers need to consider the level of “sensory pollution” in the child’s environment. If there are several conversations in the same room, ceiling fans blowing, florescent lights buzzing, and people moving around, the AS/HFA youngster with sensory hyper-sensitivities is sure to be overwhelmed.  However, if the youngster is hypo-sensitive, extra stimulation through the senses that don’t get enough information from the environment should be provided.

Understanding the way children with AS and HFA experience the world will help parents and teachers to respect them in their attempts to survive and live a productive life in a “sensory-unfriendly” world. If we understand how the AS and HFA youngster experiences the world and how she interprets what she sees, hears, feels, etc., we can design treatment programs in accordance with her perceptual abilities and deficits. Understanding each particular child’s specific difficulties and how they may affect her functioning is vital in order to adopt methods and strategies to help her function at home, school and in the community.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... Every day is a blessing learning to look through my sons eyes.
•    Anonymous said... I had a very bad morning with mine and based on observing my six year old for years is that he doesnt take well to routine change.
•    Anonymous said... Mine constantly needs background noise when he reads yet when kids in school act up, it drives him crazy!
•    Anonymous said... My son almost needs to have background noise continuously, but his choice is audio books- ones he's listened to hundreds if not thousands of times-ones that are predictable to him. Yes, he's the one listening to a book, playing a game on the tablet and watching the newest episode of Dr. Who or Game of Thrones , commenting "That's not the way it is the the book!". HELP!
•    Anonymous said... My life
•    Anonymous said... Oh how I can relate to this!
•    Anonymous said... This describes Matthew - can't touch him but he is on top of me constantly.
•    Anonymous said... Very helpful.
•    Anonymous said... Wow, a bit of an eye opener here. My 16y son comments daily that there is too much noise in the house and it's too distracting. My husband has raised song canaries for the last 6-7 years and doesn't see what's wrong with having a constant "happy chatter" from sun up to lights out! There are signs that DH may be on the spectrum too, but his sensory issues fall in a different range.

Please post your comment below…

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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My Aspergers Child - Syndicated Content