Remember your pre-teen and teenage years? They’re filled with a lot of social transitions, that’s for sure. For kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, navigating those social transitions can be particularly challenging. It can be tough for anyone on the spectrum to understand the unwritten rules of communication.
Studies show that it is important for pre-teenagers and teenagers to have healthy relationships with peers their age. Understanding some of the normalcies and quiet social cues involved in starting and maintaining those relationships can help ASD adolescents acclimate to their environment just a little bit easier. Here are a few tips and resources you can share with your pre-teen with ASD to help them feel better about integrating themselves into the social scene of middle school or high school.
Please keep in mind that everyone is different, and although these tips may work for some, they might not work for all.
Social cues can be difficult to read, employ, and navigate for kids with ASD. But they can be bettered when ASD adolescents learn about norms of space, asking questions and engaging continuing conversation, understanding emotions, and loosely reading body language. It’s a lot to do, we know. But we have a few tricks and tips that can help with those kinds of things.
Personal space is a big aspect of communication. It might be easiest for an ASD teen to imagine that, when talking to people, the person they’re talking to has a really big hula hoop surrounding their body, and they don’t want someone else inside that hula hoop. Everybody has their own idea of personal space but imagining personal space as a hula hoop is a great way to visualize a peer’s comfort zone.
Starting—and continuing—a conversation
To start a conversation, advise your teen to just to ask someone how an event in their life was. Ask about their weekend, their summer, their travels, or how a favorite class went. People really do love to talk about themselves. Try asking “How was _____” questions, or “What did you think of _____” questions. These questions allow participants in a conversation to not only talk about an event that happened to them, but also give their opinion on it. They’re both pretty good starting points.
Sophisticated questions are a great way to help ASD pre-teens and teens engage in better conversation. Sophisticated questions are a technique that encompasses the following: While having a conversation, paraphrase what the person just said and then ask a question from it. It shows people that you’re listening and interested in what they have to say and want to know more about it. It’s an easy way to keep a conversation rolling.
Teaching the principle of reciprocity is another good thing to keep in mind when helping ASD adolescents understand social skills. All conversations are give and take. When one person discloses something, you disclose something, too. Giving people minor and appropriate details about your life, after you ask for theirs or providing details about your own life when prompted is a relatively easy way to carry out a conversation.
Reading people’s emotions can be a roadblock for some ASD pre-teens and teens, too. One of the easiest ways to overcome this is to practice emotional identification using visual aids and flash cards. Photographic examples can be especially helpful in teaching facial cues and body language. We’ve got a couple of fine examples here and here.
When reviewing the cards, ask your teen what they think the person in the photo is feeling, then follow-up by asking how they might start a conversation with them. Or, if perhaps the person in the photo doesn’t want to be talked to, give them examples on how to navigate that situation.
Making it a habit
To help these tips become a routine or habit, it’s a good idea to role play it all out first with your kid. That gives them the opportunity to begin to understand the situations that they could face. Kids must learn though example and practice, so try to expose them to as many scenarios as possible, even the less than friendly potentials. Yes, we know it’s scary, but preparing your child for the social obstacles they may face can help build confidence.
In preparation of a negative social situation, equip your child with a routine or response that helps them remain calm and neutral. If a situation starts to make them they feel too uncomfortable, let them know it’s okay to get an adult involved. Unhealthy friendships and negative social interactions at school are often best handled with an adult as a mediator.
Watch movies, watch YouTube, and try to immerse them in any visuals that could help them comprehend how to navigate different situations and use their social skills. Learning from example and incorporating into routine is a great way to familiarize your child with socializing.
Be cognizant of situations and limitations
Even the best communicators in the world have rough days. Limits exist. Difficult situations will happen. While you can’t be there for every social interaction they’ll have in their day, you can equip your teen with a “tool box” of positive examples and habits from which to pull. With a little practice and parental encouragement, their social interactions may start to be a whole lot smoother.