Social relationships and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder
For your teenage child with autism spectrum disorder (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. Your child might need to work at learning these rules, along with basic social skills – for example, knowing what is and isn’t appropriate to say to people.
Whether your child has one or many friends, or prefers to be on their own, some social skills will help your child 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.
Why teenagers with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty with social situations
Teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (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, like what to do when you disagree with someone
- understanding unwritten social rules
- sharing interests with other teenagers – their interests might be very specific, or related to things that usually appeal to younger children.
Social skills strategies for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder
Here are some strategies that can help your teenage child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop social skills. Some of these strategies can also help teenagers who prefer to be on their own but still need to learn social skills for everyday situations.
Role-play is 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, like saying hello, asking for what you want and saying thank you. You could also try something related to friendships, like asking a classmate to get together at the weekend.
You can ask your child what skills and situations they want to practise. Your child could also try role-playing with other family members or friends.
Watching TV programs
Watching TV programs might give your child some idea of how to act and not act in different social situations. You could record an episode of a TV show 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 your child can watch themselves 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 and 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 that lists how to start and end a conversation.
If your child learns how to regulate their behaviour, it can help your child develop social skills. Your child 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 they talk to someone, your child could tick the sheet for each eye contact.
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. The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) is a social skills intervention that helps teenagers learn ways to make and keep friends.
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 they’re 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 their 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 about whether your child wants to tell people they have ASD.
Social media can help teenagers with ASD connect with people they know from school or activity groups. It lets them take their time and think about what they want to say. It also takes away the need to read another person’s non-verbal communication.
Helping teenagers with autism spectrum disorder understand 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 autism spectrum disorder (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 they can’t do something they like 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 they think 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?’