Special Needs

Socialization Issues In Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

I have written here before about my son, AJ, and how at 3 years old he was diagnosed with PDD, later refined to Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. Like any boy of that age, he loved to play with the other boys in the neighborhood. Most of these kids were a year or two older that he was.

Like many children, these older boys could sense that there was something different about AJ. He was too trusting, too eager. He was gullible. It is part of the disorder. Kids with ASD, don’t pick up on social queues well. They can’t understand when they are being teased or taken advantage of.

These kids would play with AJ when friends their age weren’t around, or when they were bored. They never really engaged with him on any kind of emotional level. He was someone to fill their time with until something more interesting came along.

They weren’t exactly cruel, but they would bring their own toys and ignore his pleas to play with them. He’d come home crying and we’d would tell AJ to bring some of his own toys, which he would. Of course, he would let the kids play with his toys, but they still wouldn’t let them play with theirs. This would lead to another round of crying.

crying childImage by Jan Tik

We would go ask the boys to please play nice with him and they would then say that they had to leave and they would take their toys and head home. Poor AJ would run after them asking them to stay and they would just tell him to leave them alone.

We would try to explain to AJ that these kids weren’t being nice to him, but he just didn’t understand. He would say, “But they are my friends because the play with me!”. This was a pattern that continued until at least his high school years. It was heartbreaking to see how frustrated and hurt he would be every time it happened, but yet he would just go back, believing that they were still his friends and really liked him.

We would end up telling these kids that we didn’t want them playing with AJ anymore. This would leave him to play by himself until the next set of kids came around and the cycle would start all over again.

It took a long time for us to find a good playmate for AJ, and they were always younger than he was. That made sense because AJ’s emotional maturaty has always lagged behind his physical age. This is another common issue with kids with AJ’s issues.

Children with ASD disorder face challenges in socialization that makes every relationship a challenge. As parents, there are some things we can do to help them navigate the alein landscape of social interactions. Besides talking to them about how to handle things, social scripts can be effective in helping them learn how to respond to the situations they may find themselves in.

Social scripts comprise creating a sort of play acting scene where your child is taught appropriate responses to whatever situation you are working on with him. For example, we would tell AJ that I am pretending to be a boy he has just met who has a toy that he wants to play with. He would ask me to play with it and I would refuse. He might ask again and I would tell him to go away. Then we would tell AJ that an appropriate response would be to say, “Ok. I’ll go find someone else to play with”.

These social scritps have to be done often to keep them fresh in the child’s mind. They are also not really transferable, meaning that if the child encounters a real sitation that is similar to, but not exactly like, the one he’s trained for, he most likely will not act appropriately. This means that a new social script for this new social interaction will need to be created. This is something that is constantly changing and in flux and requires continuous adaptations to keep up with the every changing social landscape that the child encounters.

Being the parent of a child like AJ is certainly a challenge and can be frustrating for both the parents and child. Yet with constant monitoring of his social situations, adaptation, and daily social scripting exercises, progress can be made and your child can begin to enjoy, and get positive reinforcement, from the social relationships he encounters.

Featured image by greekadman


Jay is a dad, husband, and pet lover. He has a degree in Theater Arts and works as a Unix systems administrator, mainly because he has a degree in Theater Arts. He used to be a single dad, but now he is married to the perfect woman. He has two teenagers, a daughter, and a step-son. He also has an adult son. He shares his home with his wife, kids, an Australian Shepherd, and a bevy of adorable chihuahuas. He is a skeptic and humanist and tries to contribute to spreading rationality by writing about skeptical topics. You can find samples of his writing on his personal blog at Freethinking For Dummies, the JREF blog, and in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

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  1. Interesting.
    My experiences with my oldest who’s broderline on the spectrum are more or less reverse.
    She was never really interested in other kids except for an “academic interest”. She knew the names of all the other kids from the playgroup I took her as a toddler or from kindergarten. But she simply ignored them when it came to playing.
    What she could never cope with is the physical nature of many children’s games and interactions. She was a very early talker and always articulated her wishes verbally, but the other kids her age would simply take a playmate by the hand and lead them to whatever they wanted to play with. Touching was and is a big no-no by people she does not trust.
    Up to 5 and a half years old we would get reports of “doesn’t have friends” from kindergarten. It wasn’t that the other kids didn’t like her, it was that she was not interested in playing with them. They would call out to her and greet her when we met them outside of kindergarten and on a good day she would actually greet them back.
    Then she overheard the principal of her primary school to be* saying that her not having friends was an issue and suddenly, as if somebody had flipped a switch, she played with other children. Her interactions are still often clumsy, and she still prefers a sheet of paper and a pencil most of the time.
    I’m wondering what will happen when she becomes a teen, the age when typically a best friend becomes the trusted person as opposed to the parents. But there is still a lot of time before that, a lot of time to learn about social interactions.

    *A long story for a different time. We had problems getting her into school and that principal was a thankfully now retired idiot

    1. Social interactions are something that has to be worked at with children like this. Some, like my son, chase after others and crave attention. Others, like your daughter, like to be alone. I suppose that why it’s called a spectrum.

      It sounds to me like you are working with her on social skills and that is the most important thing. We can’t expect our kids to be perfect, or maybe even “normal”, whatever that means. We can, however, give them all the tools, and all the love, we can so that they can be the best they can be.

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