For any teenager, developing social skills is an important part of overall development. Adolescence is a time for fostering independence and creating new friendships. For teens on the autism spectrum, the development of communication skills is especially important. Typically, teens on the spectrum are not loners by choice. As children grow towards adolescents, there is an increase in disparity, negativism, and depression. This is because the child becomes more aware of personal inadequacy. Social situations and repeated experiences of failure to make and/or maintain relationships create these feelings.
It is important that children sharpen their communication/social skills. When they focus on these skills, they are more well-equipped to deal with social situations and the demands of society. This will also help them create meaningful friendships. These skills can be taught at home. In fact, this is the best place to start.
The foundation for friendships
The foundation of friendship is communication. Friends want someone who will listen, empathize, and support them. This can be especially challenging for teens on the autism spectrum. For many teens with autism things like social cues, body language, and tone of voice are difficult to impossible to understand. For example, things like sarcasm or dry humor can go right over their heads and they can be left feeling confused or even hurt inadvertently. Some teens on the spectrum may deal with sensory processing disorders that make social interactions difficult as well. Things like loud noises at a party or strong scents in a restaurant can distract or overwhelm teens with autism in social situations. And if they are unable to communicate what they are finding distressing, neurotypical peers may not understand why their friend is feeling uncomfortable or upset. Even though these things may be challenging for teens on the spectrum, it is possible for them to learn and practice the social skills they need to connect to their peers.
Here are some ways you can influence and encourage your child to practice these skills at home:
Teach your child how to adjust their speaking style based on the following factors:
- Volume adjustment depending on the distance from the listener
- Background noise or outside distractions
- Context, social situation, the general mood of the audience
- Number of people listening
- Tone of voice
Help your child recognize and understand how to use different verbal means to do the following:
Next, in order to develop and maintain friendships with peers, it is important that your child learns how to navigate social situations. Things to consider when teaching your child how to navigate:
- How to end topics appropriately
- How to get comfortable with a range of topics that are typically discussed by same-age peers
- Shifting topics
- The ability to expand and elaborate on a range of different topics initiated by others
Teach your child appropriate means for expression:
- Self-monitor (e.g., have your child practice in front of a mirror or with family members) should all be incorporated in the process.
- Encounters with unfamiliar people should be rehearsed. In return, your child will be made aware of how behavior impacts others and how to respond to other people’s reactions to her or him.
- Concrete situations should be exercised in a therapeutic setting. Then gradually implemented in naturally occurring situations.
Building Social Skills
Creating healthy friendships is an important part of adolescence. The teen years are the time where most young adults begin to form relationships outside of their family. This is equally as important for teens on the spectrum. If your teen is looking to build their social skills, here are some things you can practice with them:
Find common interests. Some teens on the autism spectrum exhibit very limited interests and it can be challenging to connect with them outside of those interests. Instead of expecting your teen to shift their focus, find ways for them to enjoy those interests with their peers. If they enjoy building things and discovering how mechanisms work, many schools offer vocational classes like automotive skills. Here, your teen will already share common ground with others in their class and they have a subject they already feel comfortable talking about.
Encourage questions. For some teens with autism, making friends is a completely foreign concept and they have no idea where to even start. They know they want to make friends, but they can’t figure out how. Encourage your teen to ask questions. If they are confused about why a social interaction went poorly, help them talk about what happened and how things could go differently in the future. There are many sources of information for teens today, but we as parents need to be their main source and the first people they come to.
Practice skills. Once you have talked with your teen about what is and is not appropriate in social interactions, help them practice their new skills. Create some questions that they can always use when they are meeting new people and role-play being a potential new friend. The more they can practice these conversations, the more comfortable they will feel in social interactions. This also gives them an opportunity to practice answering questions as well. Some teens may also benefit from visual aids like social stories. An example of this could be a written book with visuals that describe meeting new people. For example, text can include: “When I meet a new friend I will ask their name and introduce myself.”.
Join a group. Social groups are designed to strengthen the social interaction and communication skills of children, teens, and young adults with ASD, emotional regulation challenges, or related communication disorders. Many teens on the autism spectrum thrive with schedules and routines. These groups provide the opportunity to create positive peer relationships with a built-in structure. Here they can also practice emotional regulation, problem-solving, and understanding and expressing their emotions with other teens who understand their challenges.
Build their confidence. Celebrate your teen’s talents and accomplishments. Too often, teens who are on the spectrum and struggling to connect feel like they are failing, or that there is something wrong with them. If their self-esteem is low, remind them of all the wonderful things you enjoy about them. If they are feeling stress or pressure around making friends, try to make social interactions fun. Help them remember that making friends takes time for everyone and they need to be patient and proud of all the work they have done.
Therapeutic residential treatment for your son
Practicing social skills at home can be a wonderful start, but some teens may also benefit from a therapeutic residential treatment program. Too often a teen’s diagnoses and limitations are the defining factors of identity. At New Focus Academy, we base our treatment on the groundbreaking concepts of Positive Psychology. We highlight each student’s strengths and use them to create a plan based on building confidence and motivation for personal growth.
Students experience development through various opportunities designed to challenge. Life skills education, exposure to new experiences, and practicing concepts in real-life settings allow for greater independence in our students. Our coaching-based method helps our uniquely abled students get the extra boost and motivation to progress through the program. Dedicated coaches using a consistent positive reinforcement system are the lifeblood of our program. We use coaches in all aspects of treatment to provide the necessary feedback and support our students need for social and academic growth.
Friendships help your teen to develop socially and emotionally. Positive peer relationships boost self-esteem and confidence and having friends helps your teen practice managing emotions, responding to the feelings of others, cooperating, and problem-solving. In a residential program, teens are given daily opportunities to practice their existing social skills and gain new ones. We believe a supportive community is essential for each student to connect with peers and embrace learned skills. With support and meaningful connections, students gain the ability to interact with others successfully. Our daily groups offer opportunities to share, learn, and challenge our students on and off-campus. By using our Relational Approach, we put our students on a journey of self-discovery. This isn’t an ordinary residential setting, it’s an opportunity to experience life in a way many of our students never fathomed.
New Focus Academy can help
New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The mission of the program is to use positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. At New Focus Academy, we know each student comes to us with a unique mind, background, skill set, and personal experience. Our team works with your family and child to find the specific evidence-based approaches that will help to build confidence, social growth, and motivation to become productive and self-sufficient.
The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and a clear sense of judgment. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. We can help your family today! Contact us at (435) 850-4356.