Social Skills in Children with Asperger’s Syndrome: Issues and Solutions
Most children are sponges for new information, learning rapidly about everything around them and incorporating it into their lives, often through imaginative play. For many children, social situations are no exception to this rule; they can move through peer situations easily, changing their behaviours to fit the changing milieux around them. Through experience and observation, they learn to pick up on the many subtle cues and “unspoken rules” that govern social interaction.
For a child with Asperger’s syndrome, the social world is very different place; their brains do not register this vital interpersonal information easily, particularly the more subtle forms of it, such as body language and tone of voice. Many children with Asperger’s syndrome either misread this kind of information or miss it altogether. For this reason, many children with Asperger’s syndrome appear socially awkward, and they may not behave in ways others feel are appropriate. Teaching social skills to children with Asperger’s syndrome is absolutely essential and it will help them develop proper behaviour in social situations.
In order to help children with Asperger’s syndrome learn better social skills, parents and educators must understand the unique challenges faced by children with Asperger’s, and how their brains learn differently than those of normal children. The following “problem areas” tend to have a particular impact on the learning of social skills:
- Visual spatial processing: Children with Asperger’s syndrome need things explained to them verbally, as they don’t process visual information around them easily. They will not generally observe the behaviour of their peers and mimic it, which slows social learning.
- Holistic processing: Children with Asperger’s syndrome are not “big picture” thinkers; they tend to instead hyper-focus on small details. Therefore, they often cannot read situations as whole entities, finding themselves unable to make the needed connections. Children with Asperger’s syndrome may also struggle to properly apply their past experiences to new situations, and will overly generalize situations to simplify them into something they can understand. It is also hard for children with Asperger’s to properly sense intent, leaving them both naive and prone to being inappropriately defensive.
- Abstract reasoning and problem solving: When issues arise, especially socially, children with Asperger’s syndrome often cannot think abstractly enough to solve the problems at hand (or it would take them much longer than they are likely to be allowed). They have a hard time assessing what their choices are, and selecting a specific choice that represents the best course of action. In their frustration, they can become overwhelmed and emotional.
While children with Asperger’s syndrome often have average or above-average IQs and strong language skills, the speed at which they process certain types of information is slower than average, so the rapid flow of information that accompanies many social situations can simply be too much for them.
- Difficulty with emotional regulation and insight: Not only are children with Asperger’s easily overwhelmed and often troubled by their own social awkwardness, they have a hard time recognizing what they themselves are feeling. This leads to further difficulty in coping with their emotions.
Helping Children with Asperger’s Deal with Social Situations
Owing to their relatively high IQs (as compared to those with autism), children with Asperger’s are adept learners when approached properly and given the right strategies. By drawing on their strong verbal skills and memory for rules and logical methods, one can effectively teach a child with Asperger’s how to function socially and mitigate many of the issues outlined above. To effectively teach a child with Asperger’s syndrome the needed skills for social interaction, employ the following techniques:
- Use direct verbal instruction: Children with Asperger’s are best taught in direct, logical, linear ways—an academic approach. Teach new strategies in a clear, concise way, and make sure all steps involved follow a logical sequence. New strategies should be reviewed often and practiced in a variety of settings to encourage flexibility.
- Teach a range of skills, such as identifying social cues and body language, understanding appropriate social distance and eye contact, and reading tone of voice. One should also help the child to understand the workings of non-literal language (such as metaphors) if need be.
- Reinforce problem solving skills by helping the child to identify difficult situations and how to apply learned knowledge; help him or her to develop better inference and prediction skills by verbally explaining the cause and effect of his or her actions.
- Develop emotional coping strategies; help the child to learn to recognize his or her own feelings and manage anxiety and frustration before it becomes a meltdown. If necessary, also teach better self-care techniques (making the child more aware of his or her physical needs as well, such as practicing good hygiene).
In addition to all of the above, make sure the child develops “Plan Bs” to fall back on when his or her initial plans don’t work out as expected, otherwise he or she may become dismayed when results don’t happen as predicted.
Managing Problematic Behaviour
Due to their difficulties with social interaction, children with Asperger’s can exhibit behaviour that ranges from odd to highly problematic. Many misread this behaviour as defiance or attention-seeking, when often nothing could be further from the truth; the child is in fact usually seeking more order and clearer rules.
Rather than reacting to inappropriate behaviours, try to understand what a child with Asperger’s is trying to “say”, and use it as an opportunity to help them reframe their understanding of the situation and learn better ways to cope. Keep communication calm, clear, and direct, and present logical alternatives to the problem behaviour. Allow the child to practice the response in a safe environment before trying it out in the “real world”. Punishment seldom works effectively, as a child with Asperger’s will struggle to see cause and effect and apply the knowledge to future situations. Any consequences for problem behaviours should be clear and consistent (at home and at school), lacking any unpredictability. Always set boundaries and rules beforehand and warn children with Asperger’s in a clear but calm way if they are getting out of line. Likewise, make sure that social consequences that happen naturally around the child due to this or her behaviour are fully explained.
With the above strategies and the aid of the many services which are available to help children with Asperger’s syndrome learn social functioning, including social skill groups, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and special education services, those with Asperger’s can go on to lead healthy and full social lives.
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