Socializing Kids with Autism

By Michele C. Hollow  @YourCareE
April 05, 2023

Interacting with others can be difficult even though most children on the autism spectrum want friends. Here's how to help your child improve his or her social skills.

Children want someone their own age to hang out with, to talk to, and to just be silly around. A friend to laugh with can boost one’s mood and overall well-being. All children experience awkwardness. Kids on the autism spectrum, however, have a harder time making friends.

Medications can treat some symptoms associated with autism, such as anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But treating social skills is another story.

Researchers are looking at the effectiveness of an antipsychotic medication called Risperidone for improving social interaction among people with autism. Research is also evaluating other older medications.

Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have studied a drug that has the potential to increase social interaction in individuals with some forms of autism.

“It could significantly change our understanding of the causes and brain changes in autism and could lead to new treatment approaches for the harder-to-treat social aspects of autism spectrum disorder,” said Edward S. Brodkin, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry, director of the Adults Autism Spectrum Program, and senior author of the study.

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The drug may not be for everyone, and until it is perfected, the best options continue to be teaching social skills and, depending on the child, using anxiety medication.

“With autism spectrum disorder, there are a lot of kids with anxiety,” said Karen Liberato, LCSW, a counselor and therapist at The Calais School and Therapeutic Options. “Part of being anxious is missing social cues. People often confuse this behavior as being antisocial, and that’s far from the truth. Once the anxiety is reduced, the child’s better able to work on his social skills.”

She’s surprised that so many parents of high-functioning autistic children emphasize academics over socialization when it shouldn’t be an either or scenario. An extremely bright child she worked with lacked proper social skills. He scored 2,300 on his SATs and was accepted to a four-year college. Unfortunately, he was failing.

“It wasn’t the work,” Liberato said. “It was him missing the social cues.”

On his first day in chemistry lab, his professor emphasized the importance of following rules; he told the students that if they were careless, they could blow up the lab.

“People with autism spectrum disorder take things literally,” Liberato said. “He got upset when some of the students took shortcuts or didn’t follow directions. He worried so much that he stopped going to class.”

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Another example that can be confusing is when the rules change. In high school, students are not allowed to bring sodas or soft drinks into the classroom. In college, it’s perfectly fine to do so. “For the anxious kid who sees someone with a soda, it’s like a deer in the headlights,” she said.

Most children learn by watching others. Children with autism don’t have that skill set. That’s why learning social cues are so important. For them, social skill programs must fit a child’s individual needs.

MaryAnn Holloway’s son, Justin, excelled in every social skill program she enrolled him in. “After every class, the instructor would come up to me and tell me that Justin was the star,” she said. “He followed all of the rules, shared, and played nicely. Then, I’d set up a play date and he’d be out of control.”

She took him to five different social skill programs. All had the same results. “I think it was because he was never challenged,” she said.

Liberato suggested that parents talk to the leader of the social skills group before enrolling the child. “Ask them how your children will be challenged in this program,” she said.

In her social skills classes, students create board games where they decide the rules. “That’s where you see the breakdowns, the cooperation, and the difficulties,” she said.

In one class, she had three kids talk about decorating a pumpkin for Halloween. “With three kids, you get three different opinions,” she said. “This gives them a chance to talk about what they want and how to compromise.”

They also address appropriate behaviors. “It’s acceptable for kids to be silly when they’re with their friends,” she said. “Then they try those same behaviors with a teacher or another adult and get into trouble for being inappropriate. For someone with autism, understanding social cues is like understanding a second language.”

Liberato recommends helping your child arrange play dates.

“Talk to parents ahead of time to find out what their child likes,” she said. “Then discuss that with your child and have him plan the play date. Talk about being flexible and able to compromise. Make sure a plan is in place and stick to it. Keep the play date short and structured, and be prepared to intervene if necessary.”

With enough practice, your child can learn social skills and have friends.

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April 05, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN