Updated: Apr 6
Some people love public social interactions; others, not so much. Whether or not a person has been in a certain location before, if they know people that are there with them, alongside other factors can make or break a social situation. Experiencing social discomfort and anxiety happens to everyone. Being aware of this unease in social situations is important for interacting in healthy and accommodating ways with others. In particular, kids who are somewhere on the Autism spectrum experience heightened levels of nervousness when it comes to interacting with peers. Making oneself aware of different tactics to help children with Autism feel comfortable when interacting with others can improve not only their overall growth but also their confidence.
Since social skill difficulties are part of the diagnosis criteria for people considered to be on the Autism spectrum, it is clear that specific methodologies must be utilized to make these people feel welcome and self-assured in certain situations. Difficulties from body language to verbal and physical communication may arise, so it’s crucial to consider ways to incentivize and normalize common social cues and methods for children with Autism. How can this be done? Making interaction with peers extra fun!
Framing social situations into game-like contexts helps children with Autism to see their peers not as threats, but people that can bring them happiness. As with just about every other aspect of raising a child, no two are the same. Paying attention to where a particular child struggles in social situations is the best way for a loved one to push them towards social success. What are some specific discomfort signs to look for?
We may not realize that we do it, but we gain a large amount of information during interpersonal communication from body language. Specifically, humans look almost immediately at one another’s eyes. Eye contact can truly make or break a conversation. While determining the appropriate times and frequencies for looking away aren’t always crystal clear, a baseline understanding that looking at someone’s eyes, rather than their feet, is pertinent.
Individuals with Autism experience heightened levels of anxiety when the occipital lobe of the brain processes body language. Overcoming discomfort is never simple, and commonly takes plenty of practice and patience – helping individuals with Autism learn to communicate effectively is no different. Developing a gradual habituation assistance plan can help a discomforting situation seem more like a fun game for children with Autism.
Activities that would incentivize incremental periods of eye contact are numerous, and each child will inevitably respond in different ways to different games. One could begin by asking what color a peer’s eyes are; next, where is that peer looking? What are other things that are the same color as that peer’s eyes? These interactions could culminate in an eye-contact-cue obstacle course expedition, or the classic “I Spy.” As one recognizes the child becoming more and more eye contact-friendly, then new activities can be introduced.
From eye contact, humans are able to gain significant insight into the emotions of the other person. For children with Autism, expressing emotions in a concise way is not always simple. Reading the emotions of others also becomes difficult for the same reasons. Helping children with Autism understand what some of the telltale signs of a certain emotion will help them to enter into social situations in the most beneficial, prepared way. This can be reinforced through memory games, “draw the emotion” activities, as well as acting techniques like mirroring. Asking a child “how do I look like I’m feeling today?” can help start a conversation. Rather than forcing along undesirable exercises, integrate “tests” into regular interactions.
Walking through artistic expressions with a child with Autism can be a fantastic outlet to introduce change. One trouble area for individuals with Autism is the development of a social imagination, which entails gaining information from different signs within a social interaction, and how those signs can allude to routine-breaking possibilities. Take acting as an example: one could walk a child with Autism through reading a script, taking time to discuss emotions that could be felt during each portion. Movie time could be not just a fun time to watch a new story, but a time to really explore what a person can be saying with their body, not just their words. Imagination, behavior prediction, as well as new ideologies prove difficult to grasp when dealing with Autism. Children work to create stories and games within their heads; helping those with Autism to share them and experience unpredictability can help develop adaptation in social situations.
Again, every child is different from the next, and those with Autism are no different. At times, they may find themselves unable to express their emotions to peers productively. Taking the time to assist in the development of social skills can not only strengthen trust with a child with Autism, but also help them when a familiar face may not be present. Targeting the social imagination takes time, but it helps a child learn that alternatives in life exist, and that while new things are scary, they help enrich life with fantastic experiences. Helping children learn how to be self-sufficient and independent is every parent’s goal; when an additional hurdle is in place, patience and determination are paramount in producing the greatest benefit for a child.