Excerpt: Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

Children with Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) characteristically have very individual diagnostic profiles with symptoms falling in the areas of communication, socialization, and restricted interests. Most notable is the impairment in communication and social interaction, a far-reaching challenge which impacts daily activities and relationships at home, school and work.

Social problems typically occurring in AS and HFA children and teens include the following:
  1. These children take things very literally. This may mean that it becomes difficult for them to follow a lot of what their peers are talking about.
  2. Neurotypical peers may get the AS/HFA child into trouble because, while often bright in some subjects, he is gullible when it comes to social behavior.
  3. Some children and teens on the autism spectrum learn that they have to ask a question to start a conversation, but then, instead of listening to the answer, they ask question after question, in effect drilling their peers and making them feel uncomfortable.
  4. Their difficulties reading social cues cause them to irritate peers. Difficulties in reading social cues range from (a) trouble understanding the zones of personal space, causing them to stand too close to others, to (b) a lack of basic conversation skills.
  5. They have passions, certain things that they focus on, but they may have a hard time talking about anything else, which is often annoying to peers.
  6. They may not understand social banter, and so they become easy targets for bullying and teasing.

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the AS or HFA child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually. Thus, the best treatment for these children and teens is, without a doubt, “social skills training.”

A major goal of social skills training is teaching the child about the verbal and nonverbal behaviors involved in social interactions. Unfortunately, many AS/HFA children and teens have never been taught such interpersonal skills such as "small talk" in social settings, the importance of good eye contact during a conversation, knowing when to speak – and when to listen, etc.

In addition, many of these children have not learned to "read" the many subtle cues contained in social interactions (e.g., how to tell when someone wants to change the topic of conversation or shift to another activity).

Social skills training can help AS and HFA children learn to interpret these and other social signals so that they can determine how to act appropriately in the company of others in a variety of different situations. Social skills training assumes that when children improve their social skills or change selected behaviors, they will raise their self-esteem and increase the likelihood that others will respond favorably to them. The child learns to change his “social behavior patterns” by practicing selected behaviors.

Successfully learning and generalizing of appropriate interactions requires lots of practice. Children on the spectrum often do not have the skills to initiate and sustain mutual relationships. They need to be explicitly taught the components of friendship or relationships.

Social skills are critical for long term success. Sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence, it is a combination of the ability to understand and manage one's own emotional state and the ability to understand and respond to other people. Although social skills include understanding and using social conventions, it also includes the ability to understand the "Hidden Curriculum," the ways in which peers communicate and interact, reciprocity and the ability to build interpersonal relationships.

Difficulty managing one's own emotional state, especially temper tantrums or aggression in response to frustration, is common in children with AS/HFA. Most of these children are less mature than their neurotypical peers, and may reflect less understanding of how to manage their own emotions.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders commonly have difficulty with emotional self-regulation and understanding emotion. Difficulty with social situations is a component of the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders, which reflects deficits in understanding and expression their own emotional states.

The ability to understand others' emotional states, wants and needs is critical not only for success in school, but also success in life. It is also a "quality of life" issue, which will help AS and HFA children build relationships, find happiness and succeed economically.....

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