Autism and social impairment

Lots of kids (and even adults) who have autism spectrum disorder definitely need a hand in figuring out how to act in a variety of social situations. Sometimes, they’re just misunderstood.

Lacey, 38, is mom to 10-year-old Noah, and she says it used to make her sad when she would see the “looks” thrown Noah’s way, when he would behave a little differently than his typical peers.

“As a mom, I definitely felt the judgment, you know?” she recalls. “I think a lot of people feel like kids with autism don’t want to interact, and that’s so wrong. From experience, I know they do. They just don’t know how to do it, how to engage with people, how to make friends.

“It takes the average kid a bit of time to learn social skills… even more so with autistic kids. Again, it’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just don’t how yet.”

Here are some of the ways autistic kids might exhibit challenges with social interaction:

They’re not aware. A characteristic of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD for short, is an impaired ability to engage, create or maintain social relationships. This can seriously affect kids with autism, because it can be harder for them to make friends. Kids on the spectrum sometimes behave or look as though they’re completely ignoring other people, like no one else is in the room or the playground, which can alienate them. Sometimes, they might not even respond to their name or listen when they’re being spoken to, or even react to a conversation or noise. Some kids with ASD display inappropriate facial expressions (if they express any at all), or they might treat other kids like they’re inanimate objects or toys. They might not be able to make eye contact.

Kids with autism who do have some social skills might be awkward to other people, not realizing they’re making faces they shouldn’t, or saying things that might be said differently so as not to offend or hurt others. Keep in mind that kids with ASD don’t want to hurt anyone with their words or expressions – they just don’t see a perspective outside of their own. An example of this is when an autistic child says something truthful to another child but it is said in a way that is less than kind; the other child may cry, and the autistic child has no idea why they’ve upset them.

They have a hard time making friends. Kids with autism aren’t able to relate to other kids in a reciprocal or positive way, and they also can’t adapt interpersonal skills to the different demands of a number of social situations.

What makes it tougher for some parents, those who wish their autistic child would make friends, is that a lot of kids with ASD don’t want the opportunity to interact, and they may not even be comfortable being around other kids, period. This means they’re not seeking out friends, and other kids aren’t exactly going to seek them out either.

Imitation is a challenge. Kids learn behavior patterns all the time, and often, they do it through imitating patterns of social interaction. Little ones with ASD might not respond (or may be delayed in their response) to gestures or behaviors of their peers. Even if they see these gestures and behaviors repeated, they still may not respond.

But this doesn’t mean they’re never going to – intervention typically results in the child’s ability to improve imitative learning.

They want to comforted, even when we don’t realize they need to be. Kids with ASD want things to be predictable all the time. They function best when they’re provided routine and structure. But because of this, they become very dependent on sameness and similarity – so when there’s a change in routine, they tend to not how to cope or deal.

Kids with ASD get stressed out at different times; other kids might look for comfort and reassurance during what neurotypical people find “normal,” like during fearful moments or when they’re in pain. But kids with ASD might react with the same panic and stress when they’re faced with what we might consider harmless, like a change of routine or schedule. This is because they find change unpleasant, and to them, that’s terrifying.

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