Adolescents diagnosed with autism are impacted by struggles with navigating the social world around them. Daily life is constructed with thousands of social interactions and when a teen struggles just to orient, relate or even pass through unnoticed, there is increased distress and frustration resulting in sadness, anxiety, and a loss of resilience. Many brilliant young people with social deficits cannot live up to their potential because of the distress associated with social impairments. A current study discusses early research on the performance of a group of adolescents with high-functioning autism over a 7-month trial. The intervention was targeted towards teaching and providing assistance with teaching interpersonal problem solving, understanding emotions in self and others, and social interaction skills; the results are heartening.
In the August 2002 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Nirit Bauminger demonstrated measurable improvements in children with high-functioning autism using specific social skills training. The results were robust and children showed improvements in three main areas of intervention: 1) Initiating positive social interaction with peers; 2) Problem solving; and 3) Emotional knowledge. Teacher-rated measures also demonstrated improvements in assertion and cooperation. Subsequent studies have found similar results and show that by addressing specific social skills training there can be measurable improvements.
Clinically, those diagnosed with autism struggle with “reciprocal social interaction and difficulties in emotional expression and recognition” (APA 1994). (In DSM 5, Asperger’s is now diagnosed within the Autism Spectrum Disorders.) People diagnosed as high-functioning within the autism spectrum can often go undetected, where symptoms are dismissed as being ‘oddities’ or ‘different ways of thinking’. All the changes typical to “adolescence” are complex and difficult enough for adolescents, but when a high-functioning autistic person enters adolescence and begins dealing with frequent classroom changes, complex social dynamics, and substantial changes in hormones, there are often times sizable behavioral struggles that require a closer look into what is happening.
Neurotypical people learn from social modeling, meaning that without instruction, we start to notice what does and doesn’t work through observation. But those with high-functioning autism don’t naturally pick up on these skills, but can learn them with proper support. Research supports that by using various interventions that target teaching interpersonal problem solving, understanding one’s own emotions and the emotions of others, and specific skills related to social interaction we can begin to see a young person who is more functional, and most importantly more happy.
For example, improving eye contact, with specific training related to social interactions greatly increases social awareness, which often improves functioning. Also important is the ability to “relate”, to share experiences with peers and to show interest in others. Success with simple relating leads to practicing problem solving with social situations. These skills are contingent on developing an understanding of emotions, both one’s own emotions and those of others.
In a detailed research study in 2008, Jacqueline Countryman describes the elements of conducting social skills groups with autistic clients. The author notes that “a group setting is most effective to teach social skills as group members can learn from each other.” Countryman describes how “initially, learning how to interpret others’ social behaviors… should be taught and practiced”. Group members closely attend and study the skills of making eye contact, using tone of voice, expressing and reading body language, as well as facial and hand gestures. Movies and TV shows may be used as a starting point, but having group facilitators provide in-the-moment examples and having group members mirror each other’s behaviors is essential. Countryman continues with the idea of taking on more difficult social skills such as “humor, figurative language, and sarcasm, (which) should be taught as the individuals are felt developmentally ready for such topics.”
While these skills can be learned, generalizing them into abilities that can adapt to new situations is much harder so, frequent and regular role playing with novel situations over several months (and beyond) is an important aspect of the learning process. Also, when practical, educating and helping parents to understand and learn this process can allow for continuing improvement for years to come. Most importantly, the constant message from over 15 years of research is that social development provides a significant positive impact of greater confidence, happiness and comfort in novel social situations.
Recommended reading for parents:
- The complete guide to Asperger’s Syndrome ~Tony Attwood
- Parenting a Child with Asperger’s Syndrome ~ Brenda Boyd
- Asperger’s Syndrome and Anxiety ~ Nick Dubin
- Look me in the Eye ~ John Elder Robison
- Be Different ~ John Elder Robison
Recommended reading for adolescents struggling with high functioning Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, or PDD:
- Be Different ~ John Elder Robison (about autism) • Social Literacy: A Social Skills Seminar for Young Adults with ASDs, NLDs, and Social Anxiety ~ Mary Riggs Cohen (social skills)
- The Social Success Workbook for Teens: Skill-Building Activities for Teens with Nonverbal Learning Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Other Social-Skill Problems (An Instant Help Book for Teens) ~ Barbara Cooper MPS & Nancy Widdows (social skills)
- Social Skills Training for Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Social-Communications Problems ~ Jed Baker (social skills)
- Social Skills Picture Book for High School and Beyond ~ Jed Baker (social skills)
About the Author Brandon Park, PhD is a Neuropsychologist and Behavioral Specialist. Prior to private practice, he was a Wilderness Therapist at Outback Wilderness Therapy and Director of Assessment at the ViewPoint Center.