Social relationships for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder
For your child with ASD, there are lots of upsides to having healthy relationships with peers. They can boost your child’s self-esteem and sense of belonging. Friendships and social relationships also give your child experience in managing emotions, responding to other people’s feelings, negotiating, cooperating and problem-solving.
But teenage social relationships are also full of unspoken social rules, which your child might find confusing. She might need to work at learning these rules, along with basic social skills, such as what is and isn’t appropriate to say to people.
Whether your child has one or many friends, or prefers to be on his own, some social skills will help him know how to act in different social situations – from talking to a shop assistant to being part of family gatherings or having fun at teenage parties.
Your child’s friendships are likely to follow her developmental stage, rather than her age in years. This means she might be less interested in the social and emotional side of friendships than typically developing teenagers. Her friendships might be based more on shared interests than feelings.
Developing social skills
Teenagers with ASD often find social situations difficult. They can also find it hard to make and keep friendships. This can be because they have trouble:
- working out what other people are thinking and feeling
- understanding facial expressions and body language
- adjusting to new social situations
- solving social problems, such as what to do when you disagree with someone
- understanding unwritten social rules.
Here are some strategies that can help your child develop social skills.
Role plays are a good way for your child to practise social skills. For example, you and your child could role-play the skills you need when you’re in a shop, such as saying hello, asking for what you want and saying thank you. You could talk to your child about what skills and situations he would like to practise. Your child could also try role-playing with other family members or friends.
Watching TV programs
Watching dramas might give your child some ideas of how to act and not act in different social situations. You could record an episode and pause it to talk about what your child would do next in that situation.
You can buy ready-made videos to help your child learn social skills, but making your own is also an option. For example, you might record two of your friends having a scripted conversation that shows how to start a conversation and what to say. Or you could video your child taking turns, so that he can watch himself modelling the behaviour. You could also use video to help your child understand facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and so on.
Social Stories™ can be useful for explaining social rules. For example, you could use a Social Story™ to explain what a social kiss is and when it’s appropriate.
Lists, examples and pictures
You could use pictures to show how people let others know they’re interested in having a conversation. For example, the pictures might include someone looking at you and smiling, or someone looking away or yawning. You could use photos to show different facial expressions and body language.
These can be helpful to remind your child what to do in different situations. For example, you could pass a ‘My turn’ card back and forth to practise taking turns in a conversation. Or your child might carry a prompt card in her school bag that lists how to start and end a conversation.
Learning to regulate his behaviour can help your child develop his social skills. He could record how often a particular behaviour happens using tick sheets, stickers or a wrist counter. For example, if your child’s goal is to make eye contact when he talks to someone, he could tick his sheet each time he does.
Social skills training
Some ASD interventions are designed to teach and develop social skills. For example, Stop Think Do uses problem-solving strategies. The Secret Agent Society (SAS) is a social skills program that you can get as a computer game, board game or group therapy sessions.
Your child might like to join a local social group to meet other teenagers with ASD, share experiences and make friends. This can help your child realise that she’s not alone. Your state autism service can help you find out about groups in your area.
If there aren’t any groups, you and your child could start one. Think of an activity your child likes – for example, bowling – pick a regular night and advertise your group at your child’s school, the local library, sports centre and so on.
Your child might also like to join a group based on her hobby. A group where the members have similar interests can make socialising easier to start with, because it gives your child something to talk about.
If your child is worried about going to a social group, you, a family member or a friend could go along for extra support to start with. If the group isn’t specifically for people with ASD, you could talk with your child about whether he wants to tell people he has ASD.
Encouraging your child to have friends over and giving them a space in your home gives your child another chance to practise social skills.
Understanding how other people feel
Seeing things from someone else’s point of view and understanding how someone else is feeling are important social skills – but they can be hard for teenagers with ASD.
Social Stories™ are one way to help your child think about things from someone else’s point of view. For example, you could create a story about how your child might feel when she can’t do something she likes doing, or how a friend might feel in the same situation.
You can also use everyday situations to encourage your child to see situations from another person’s perspective. Throughout the day, for example, tell your child how you’re feeling, and why you’re feeling that way.
And you can ask your child to describe how he thinks you might be feeling. For example, ‘I dropped my piece of toast on the floor. How do you think I feel? How would you feel if that happened to you?’
You will probably need to go over these messages many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. You might find it helpful to share experiences and get support from other parents in our forum for parents of children with ASD