The various disorders on the autism spectrum under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder vary in their traits, but generally include communication difficulties, social impairment and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Autistic children generally lack the theory of mind that allows those without autism to infer the intentions of another. Kids with autism can learn this skill but on an intellectual level. It doesn't come naturally. Couple this impairment with their preference for sameness, and it's easy to see why autistic kids can have great difficulty adjusting to new people. The social arena may seem like another planet. However, kids with autism can adjust to new people in their lives when given enough time, assistance and support from their parents, teachers and peers.
The introduction of a new person can result in the autistic child feeling anything from uncomfortable to overwhelmed. One of the main reasons for this stress is that kids with autism thrive on routine and sameness. In many cases, it is this deviation from routine, not the person herself, that rocks an autistic child. However, when a person constantly appears in an autistic child’s life, his appearance becomes part of the routine and sameness. In this case, the child expects the now not-so-new person’s appearance. Thus, over time, the uncomfortable feelings associated with a new person may lessen or disappear.
Show and Tell
It is very common for a child with an ASD, especially Asperger's, to hyper-focus on a special interest. Often these interests are obscure, such as train timetables or Temple Grandin's childhood interest in cattle grids. Interests may broaden as a child grows -- Grandin grew up to become a professor of animal science. For many autistic children, these special interests are more captivating than people. Kids with Asperger's are more likely to want to socialize than those with classic autism, but their challenge is learning the give and take of conversation, as opposed to talking only about their special interests. A child with classic autism is more likely to be indifferent to people but sharing a special interest with someone who has the same interest can be the catalyst for a relationship. By learning conversation skills, he can share his interests with others but also listen to others talk about their own interests. By “showing and telling,” autistic children can form rituals that involves both their passions and new people.
Feedback for Correction
Parents and new people entering the life of an autistic child should not overlook feedback. Autistic children are not immune nor neglectful of useful social feedback. As they lack a natural understanding of ideas such as friendship and social niceties, autistic children can learn these concepts on an intellectual level from the people around them. For example, an autistic child might be naturally fascinated with the belly of an overweight classmate, constantly touching it. A parent or teacher can intervene in such instances, giving the autistic child non-critical feedback to explain that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that we shouldn’t touch people just because they look different from us. Parents and teachers should constantly giving feedback to shift autistic children toward the development of more normal and stable relationships.
A Trial Run
Autistic children typically are not on their own but have the guidance of their parents, teachers, counselors and peers. Besides offering feedback, this support also offers the opportunity to experiment and role-play. Parents especially can use role-playing in helping children prepare for meeting new people. Whether they use action figures or simply pretend, parents can set the stage for new social encounters, showing their children what to expect. For example, to prepare a child for a game of tag with non-autistic children, a parent can first arrange a similar game in the home with the family. This trial run helps an autistic child know what to expect. Such activities can be used to prepare for many types of social encounters.
- How to live with Autism and Asperger Syndrome; Chris Williams and Barry Wright
- Queensland Government: My Child Has Autism
- Children’s Mental Health Ontario: Evidence-Based Practices for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders
- National Institute of Mental Health: Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Temple Grandin.com