Autism and Social Skills

Posted December 31, 2020

Connecting With your Child

From the very beginning, when a baby is hungry, wet, uncomfortable, or just wants attention, they cry. As we respond and take care of their needs, they learn what it takes to get our attention. When our eyes meet theirs and we smile, they smile back. We laugh, and they laugh. They reach up for us to hold them. We pick them up and share a hug. When they begin to crawl and walk, they will turn back to look at us to make sure we are there and then venture out a little further. To me, that social connection between a parent and a child is like an invisible rope that tethers us together. The older and more mature a child is, the longer the rope reaches, giving them the space they need to make healthy connections with others, knowing they are anchored to support whenever needed.

My daughter Morgan was diagnosed with autism at age 3 ½. One of the markers I remember was her gradually losing the joy she once had in connecting with us. She stopped making eye contact. She would not initiate interaction. We had to work hard to engage her. The games and activities that had once been so much fun turned into tasks to keep her attention.

Autism was fraying at every thread of that invisible connection we had.

Social Functioning

Impairment in social functioning is a central feature of autism spectrum disorder. Typical social skills deficits include: initiating interactions, responding to the initiations of others, maintaining eye contact, sharing enjoyment, reading the non-verbal cues of others, and taking another person's perspective.

Social skills are the skills we use to communicate and interact with each other, both verbally and non-verbally, through gestures, and body language. In the 1950s a theory was spread in the medical community that autism and schizophrenia were caused by “refrigerator mothers”. They blamed mothers, saying they lacked the maternal warmth their child needed. Imagine the guilt this put on a parent who was doing everything they could to reach their child. That theory has long since been disproved.

Autism is now known to be a neurological disorder. It has some genetic origins, as well as environmental factors. Anxiety and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) often accompany autism. It is also estimated that 1/3 of individuals with autism have seizures. Autism is a hidden disability because there are no external physical features you can see.

If you are a parent, desperately struggling to connect with your child, I’m telling you all of this, because I want you to understand you did not cause these behaviors. It is a medical condition.

Autism can be a very isolating disability for families, due to the lack of understanding by others. It is important to seek support for yourself and your family members from the autism community. Cry together. Learn together. Share and Celebrate your child’s accomplishments. Laugh. Breathe. Take good care of yourself, mentally and physically, so you can continue to help your child be their personal best.

Understanding Different Perspectives

Here is some information that helped me better understand my daughter and her perspective, as an individual on the autism spectrum. Morgan does not have the ability to understand other people’s perspectives. She does not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. She assumes if she is happy, the world should be happy. This is called “mind blindness”¹ . At the same time, she expects you to know what she is thinking. She does not think she should have to tell you what she wants. Because she knows, she thinks you should know. Learning more about “Theory of Mind”¹ will give you a better understanding of this. Autism stops Morgan from accessing her words when she is upset. Me not being able to read her mind causes tremendous frustration for both of us. It has helped me understand how difficult it must be for nonverbal children and their families. 1

Sometimes it can be difficult to discern what is disability and what is plain old misbehavior.

Social Stories

We are always challenging Morgan to be her best. Age and maturity has helped her to be more flexible. One of the best tools we were given to help her understand appropriate behavior is “social stories”² . This is a short story, written in first person, about a specific situation. It tells what went wrong. It suggests a better way to do things, so she will have a positive result. Recently, Morgan became very upset, because she was having to wait on something. One of the things she always says after an outburst is, “I was just trying to fix it.” In her defense, 2020 was a hard year of waiting for all of us. Here is an example of the social story we wrote to help her wait on things in an appropriate way. It is important for her to see the story and read it aloud. After doing this, she was able to see a solution and calm down. 2

I Can Wait Happy

Sometimes when I have to wait, I am sad.

Everyone has to wait sometimes.

If I get angry and say angry words, everyone gets mad.

I do not get anything.

But if I am kind, and wait nicely,

Everyone is kind and works together to fix it.

And we are happy.

I can wait and be happy.

One of the reasons social stories work so well is they give a clear solution to a specific situation. It can be hard for our children to generalize social lessons. Remember, most children learn social skills through a natural progression. It starts with the answered cries of a baby. When children go to school and play with friends, peer pressure plays a role in helping them know what behavior is acceptable and what is not.

Since children on the autism spectrum do not naturally pick up those social cues, they need that extra support to understand what friends expect.

Recently, a mother of an eight year old boy asked me for some suggestions to help her son. He wants friends, but it is very difficult for him to play when others do not follow his rules. This goes back to that “mind blindness” I mentioned earlier. He doesn’t understand that his friends have their own plans and ideas. His rigidness pushes friends away. I suggested a social story that might help him listen to his friends ideas. This gives him a clear reason to give his friends a turn. Hopefully this will help him be more flexible, so he can start weaving together the connection ropes that build relationships. Here is an example on how a social story might help:

More Than One Right Way

There are lots of roads in our town.

If one road is closed, I can take another road to get to my favorite place.

There is more than one right way to get there.

When I take new roads, I get to see new things.

I want my friends to play my games by my rules.

Sometimes my friends want to play their way.

If we take turns, I can see fun new ways to play.

There is more than one right way to play.

Social skills require a lifetime of learning. The great thing about teaching is how much we learn ourselves along the way. From personal experience, I can tell you mistakes will be made. But as Morgan would say, “We can always try again.” Together, we can “Fix it.”

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