Uncovering the Antisocial Myth: Social Skills in Teens with Autism

One of the most common myths about teens with autism is that they have no social skills. While they may struggle with making friends, it is not because they don’t care about other people, but rather because they have difficulty understanding their own emotions and seeing other people’s point of view. They are better at identifying physical symptoms of emotions than understanding why they’re feeling a certain way, as the physical sensations can sometimes be so overwhelming that they’re focused on that part of the experience. They are self-aware–just in different ways.

Origins of the Antisocial Myth

A recent study suggests that this stereotype may be explained by alexithymia, which is often associated with autism, but is not a defining characteristic. University of Vienna neuroscientist, Giorgia Silani, explains,  “in alexithymia, there is a lack of understanding one’s own or others’ emotions. In autism, however, we know that what is reduced is the theory of the mind, or the ability to attribute thoughts and mental states to others.” He found that when presented with a moral dilemma, people with autism were just as likely as neurotypical subjects, if not more, to choose the option of showing empathy towards others, often sacrificing their own security.

What is Theory of Mind?

While people with autism are empathetic towards others, they struggle with being able to understand that other people have perspectives that are different than their own. This comes from their desire to relate to others, but is also connected to problems with executive functioning. If someone verbalizes their perspective, they may find it easier to respect and understand. However, inferring someone’s beliefs, thoughts, or emotions is harder to tell based on their behavior as they struggle with reading facial expressions and body language. While these factors contribute to perceived “social competence,” they do not lack social skills altogether. Problems with sensory processing and social anxiety may lead to social difficulties, but when they are comfortable in relationships, they have many strengths as well.

Social Difficulties:

  • Struggling to relate to others’ interests
  • Overwhelmed by crowds
  • Fear of embarrassing themselves or offending others leads to learned censorship
  • Speech difficulties or trouble communicating thoughts the way they intend
  • Sensitive to touch and sound

Social Strengths:

  • While they may struggle with identifying exactly what other people are thinking, they are often sensitive to other people’s energy and can pick up on when someone may be slightly upset or worried about something. 
  • Despite difficulty with Theory of Mind, they may try to overcompensate by trying to pay more attention to other people’s experiences.
  • Passionate about certain subjects, often including relationships with certain people.
  • While they may struggle with physical boundaries and touch, they are cautious about taking levels of intimacy slowly, which can be a protective factor, as they value trust and security in relationships. 

New Focus Academy Can Help

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. 

For more information about social skills in autism, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!

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