Building Socio-Emotional Connection for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is on the rise. The CDC reports that ASD is up from 1 in 68 in 2016 to 1 in 59 in 2018. That’s 15% in just 2 short years.  Most people either know someone in their family or have someone in their community who is impacted by this disorder – we are interacting with people on the spectrum every day.  I work with many individuals and families seeking help, focusing on an array of challenges, including the particularly common side effect of social isolation. Children on the spectrum often display a strong desire to connect with peers but have a lack of skill to appropriately do so.  This means that they very much want to have friends and engage in social activities, but do not have the innate social radar that their neurotypical peers are born with. Thus, when they make social snafus they are continuously told what not to do and struggle to tweak their behavior for better results.  It is critically important to build soco-emotional tools for those with ASD, as co-morbid mental health disorders are high; 20% of young adults with ASD report depression, and 29-50% of those with ASD report anxiety, compared to 18% of the general population.

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Ask About their Experiences

Just like anyone, start where they are.  Ask about their experiences, see things from their perspective.  Don’t try and steer or correct, just listen and take a genuine interest.  This leads to connection, and the critically important knowledge they are valuable and lovable.  This can be more challenging for parents when the child’s experiences are intensely repetitive or rigid, or even feel counterproductive (i.e., blaming others).  Perspective building will come, but first, we need to take time to encourage and validate before they can take on alternative points of views.

Provide Concrete Ideas for What to Do

Children with ASD often have difficulty coming up with ideas on how to connect with the peers in an appropriate manner.  They do not have a “menu” of choices that will work, so they may need more concrete, direct input from adults. This may even include practicing before a big event, such as the first day of school or a play date, as well as recapping after the event of what went well and what could be changed for next time.  Often, reading others can be difficult so they may even be unsure of how well things went, so practice and processing will be helpful.

Use Visuals/Multimedia Examples

Talking things out is certainly helpful for some, but like all of us, learning styles vary.  It is known that visuals can be particularly helpful for those on the spectrum, and reducing verbal conversational demand can take the pressure off, allowing more brain space for processing.  I always keep drawing materials near so I can write or draw concepts as that can be hugely helpful for clarity. Video sites, such as YouTube, can be a rich resource for positive socio-emotional tools that capture the attention of all children.

Connect with Empathy

Like all people, those on the spectrum have big emotions.  Anecdotally in my work, I find that at times, people on the spectrum display even bigger feelings, stemming from a variety of factors.  A few examples being — feelings words can be hard to understand and access which can make regulating a challenge; executive functioning can be delayed, which can impact emotion regulation; senses can be hyper-attuned; and/or physical discomfort can be magnified/sleep patterns are often interrupted which can certainly impact moods.  All of this in conjunction with living in a world built on cooperation and social connection that at times does not make total sense can be a challenge. Whatever the reason, a key way to connect and try and relate is through empathy. Letting the child know that they are not alone and you are with them in their feelings can be life-changing. Brene Brown has a wonderful video on empathy that succinctly explains how to achieve it and why it’s so critical:

Beware of Shame

A few years ago, I attended a lecture given by Jennifer Cook O’Toole, an adult with Aspergers Syndrome. She said something that will forever stay with me — “We won’t know when we step on your toes, but boy will we feel so bad when we do.” In my years since, in working with and talking with people on the spectrum, this is has been confirmed as true far more often than not.  Many on the spectrum tend to be unaware of hurting others, but once they realize they’ve done it, they feel intense guilt and shame for doing so.  Sometimes this shame is hidden behind blame (often in younger children, they will blame others because the shame they feel is too painful), but shame and embarrassment is often underlying once they realize the hurt they have caused.  Shame is a major source of disconnection from others and can lead us to feel unworthy and unlovable. Thus, as family members and therapists, it is our job to help children recognize the difference between inappropriate actions and changing behavior vs. being bad as a person. Beware of lecturing and work together to assure your child that they do not need to feel shame and that they can build the skills to move forward together with your help.


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