Family Guidance Title

Peer Interactions

"I am not asking for my child to be the life of the party, or a social butterfly. I just want her to be happy and have some friends of her own. She is a wonderful kid, and I hope someday others can see that." -- a parent of a child with autism.

Social Skill Deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Indeed, many parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) echo this sentiment concerning their childís social functioning. They know that their child has many wonderful qualities to offer others, but the nature of their disability, or more precisely, their poor social skills, often preclude them from establishing meaningful social relationships. This frustration is amplified when parents know that their children want desperately to have friends, but fail miserably when trying to make friends. Often, their failure is a direct result of ineffectual programs and inadequate resources typically made available for social skills instruction. For most children, basic social skills (e.g., turn taking, initiating conversation) are acquired quickly and easily. For children with ASD, the process is much more difficult. Whereas, many children learn these basic skills simply by exposure to social situations, children with ASD often need to be taught skills explicitly. The present article addresses social skill deficits in children and adolescents with ASD by providing a five stage model for social skills instruction, with particular emphasis placed on an emerging intervention strategy, videotaped self-modeling (VSM).

Lack of "Know-How" Versus Lack of Social Interest

Impairment in social functioning is a central feature of ASD and is well documented in the literature (Attwood, 1998; Rogers, 2000). Typical social skill deficits include difficulties with: reciprocity, initiating interactions, maintaining eye contact, sharing enjoyment, empathy, and inferring the interests of others (APA, 1994). The cause of these skill deficits varies, ranging from inherent neurological impairment (e.g., limbic system dysfunction) to lack of opportunity to acquire skills (e.g., social withdrawal). Most important, these social skill deficits make it difficult for the individual to develop, and keep meaningful and fulfilling personal relationships.

The long held notion that individuals with autism spectrum disorders lack an interest in social interactions is often inaccurate. Many individuals with ASD do indeed desire social involvement, however, these individuals typically lack the necessary skills to interact effectively. One young man I worked with illustrates this point quite well. Prior to my visit, the school staff informed me of his inappropriate behaviors and his apparent ìlack of interestî in interacting with other children. After spending the morning in a self-contained classroom, Zach was given the opportunity to eat lunch with the general school population (a time and place that produced many of the problem behaviors). As he was eating lunch, a group of children to his right began a discussion about frogs. As soon as the conversation began, he immediately took notice. So too did I. As he was listening to the other children, he began to remove his shoes, followed by his socks. I remember thinking, "Oh boy, here we go!" As soon as the second sock fell to the ground, Zach flopped his feet on the table, looked up at the group of children and proclaimed, "Look, webbed feet!" The other children (including myself) stared in amazement. In this case, Zach was demonstrating a desire to enter and be a part of a social situation, but he was obviously lacking the necessary skills to do so in an appropriate and effective manner.

This lack of "ìknow-how" could also lead to feelings of social anxiety in some children. Many parents and teachers report that social situations typically evoke a great deal of anxiety from their children. Individuals with ASD often describe an anxiety that resembles what many of us feel when we are forced to speak in public (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, noticeable shaking, difficulties concentrating, etc.). Not only is the speaking stressful, but just the thought of it is enough to produce stomach-gnawing butterflies. Imagine living a life where every social interaction you experience was as anxiety provoking as having to make a speech in front of a large group! The typical coping mechanism for most of us is to reduce the stress and anxiety by avoiding the stressful situation. For individuals with ASD, it often results in the avoidance of social situations, and subsequently, the development of social skill deficits. When a child continually avoids social encounters, she denies herself the opportunity to acquire social interaction skills. In some individuals, these social skill deficits lead to negative peer interactions, peer rejection, isolation, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicidal ideation. For others, it creates a pattern of absorption in solitary activities and hobbies; a pattern that is often difficult to change.

A Five Step Model

1. Identify Social Skill Deficits

2. Distinguish Between Skill Acquisition and Performance Deficits

3. Select Intervention Strategies

4. Implement Intervention

5. Assess and Modify Intervention as Necessary

For detailed information of the Five Step Model, please visit the IRCA Website.

IRCA - Dr. Scott Bellini


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Richard, Age 54