Social Skills and Behavior in Children with Asperger Syndrome: An Educational Perspective

Hannah Gould, M.Ed.

Children who experience social success are those who are able to accurately assess a situation, recognize what is expected and appropriate, and act in a way that “goes with the flow” of what is going on. Some children seem to be able to do this almost magically. As social dynamics shift subtly from one situation to the next, these children adjust and thrive. For these children, social skills are learned quite naturally through experience and observation. For children with Asperger Syndrome this kind of social “learning by osmosis” does not effectively occur. Children with AS tend to miss much of the information conveyed by non-verbal social cues (body language, tone of voice, etc.). They may simply not attend to this information, and the cues that they do notice are often misinterpreted. This leads to frustratingly awkward social interactions and ineffective behavioral responses.

Effective strategies to teach social skills and address behavior are as varied and diverse as the unique individuals who make up the AS population. The intention of this article is to provide a frame of reference through which to view and respond to the challenges our children face. Several areas of difference in the typical learning profiles of children with AS make learning social skills difficult:

  • Visual spatial processing: Children with AS tend to rely on language as their primary source of information. They are less tuned in to visual information and less able to process it effectively. They do not naturally “watch and learn.”
  • Holistic processing: Children with AS tend to notice details, but miss the big picture. It can be difficult for them to get an accurate read on the situation they are involved in. Holistic processing also involves making connections, applying past experience, generalizing information from one situation to another, and making inferences. Deficits in any of these areas make it difficult for effective social learning to occur in a “natural” way. Children with AS have an especially hard time inferring the intentions of other people. This can lead to inappropriately harsh or defensive reactions, and can also leave these children vulnerable to being manipulated by more savvy peers.
  • Abstract reasoning and problem solving: When a situation becomes problematic, children with AS often have no idea what to do. They may have trouble recognizing what their options are and making a choice. This results in getting “stuck”—locking into an ineffective behavior or becoming frustrated and melting down.
  • Slow processing speed: Despite their generally strong language skills, children with AS can be overwhelmed by the rapid flow of information in a social situation.
  • Emotional vulnerability: Because it is difficult for children with AS to generalize what they have learned from one situation to the next, the world can seem chaotic and overwhelming. Efforts to reach out and connect with peers can be awkward, unsuccessful, and even painful. Children with AS often have difficulty recognizing their own emotional states, and lack effective coping skills to help them deal with overwhelming emotions.

The patterns of behavior that result from these learning differences are familiar to anyone who knows a child with AS.

  • S/he misses social cues and misreads a situation.
  • S/he reacts to the situation inappropriately.
  • The result of his/her behavior is something s/he did not anticipate, leading to anxiety and perhaps another inappropriate reaction.
  • The higher her/his anxiety level becomes, the more rigid and emotional s/he is likely to get. S/he has gotten into a difficult situation and now is “stuck”.

Strategies and Interventions: The good news is that children with AS are very capable of learning and developing their social skills. They can make effective progress with appropriate interventions that capitalize on their many strengths. These skills will not be learned by observation as they often are with ‘typical’ peers, so they need to be directly taught. Children with AS often have excellent verbal skills. Their strong language skills, auditory attention, and rote memory for rules and strategies can help them to access social information.

Direct verbal instruction: Skills will need to be taught directly and intentionally, just as academic curriculum is presented. Practical rules and strategies should be presented to the child in a clear, verbally explicit, logically sequenced manner. Once taught, strategies should be reviewed and practiced in a variety of settings. Parents can find ways to reinforce these skills at home using the many challenges and learning opportunities that daily life presents. Flexible teachers and specialists can take advantage of the time that may be freed up by rapid rote learning. For example, while other students are drilling and practicing spelling words, the student with AS might be studying idioms or reading and responding to social stories.

Specific skills and strategies should be taught based on the most immediate needs of the individual child. Some areas of focus might include:

  • Social cues, including body language, social distance, eye contact, and tone of voice.
  • Speech pragmatics, including introductions, conversational skills, tone of voice.
  • Non-literal language, including slang, idioms and expressions.
  • Problem solving skills, including how to identify a problematic situation and apply specific learned strategies; how to use prior knowledge to make inferences; how to predict the outcome of different possible actions.
  • Emotional coping skills, including learning to identify feelings of anxiety and frustration, manage stress, and apply effective strategies to respond to their emotions.
  • Functional life skills, including taking care of oneself and one’s space, eating at restaurants, going shopping, etc. All of these life skills can be broken down and taught as systems of logically sequenced steps and rules. Remember to teach back-up plans for when things don’t go as expected!

Effective Consequences: While the behavior of children with AS can seem odd at best and downright unmanageable at worst, it is important to keep the perspective that inappropriate behavior is not likely to be intentionally disruptive or defiant. In fact, children with AS rely heavily on rules and clear expectations in order to feel safe. These children frequently misinterpret situations, resulting in out-of-sync and ineffective behavior. They may become easily overwhelmed or feel threatened by unfamiliar social situations or seemingly chaotic surroundings. Structure and predictability is their safety net, and unexpected glitches in their routines can send them into a tailspin.

Inappropriate behaviors offer important opportunities to help children reframe their understanding and to teach alternative responses. Once the child’s emotional state is defused enough to hear it, the situation and behavior should be processed with an adult in a calm and direct way. A more appropriate response should be presented verbally, and the child should be given the opportunity to practice this response in a safe setting (such as role-playing with a parent or counselor or with peers in a social skills group). Punishment without this type of processing is likely to add to the child’s feelings of anxiety and confusion. Punishment involving taking away preferred activities such as computer time or reading is not likely to be effective and can deprive the child of a much needed outlet for stress.

Consequences should be as consistent and predictable as possible. Set clear limits and give warnings to let the child know exactly what the consequence will be if the behavior continues—and follow through! This takes away some of the feelings of unfairness, and also helps the child develop an understanding of cause and effect. Natural consequences should be pointed out whenever possible (e.g. “When you yell at John, he does not want to give you a turn.”). Communication between home and school is crucial to address behaviors with consistency. Knowing that adults at home and at school are on the same page will also help to alleviate the child’s anxiety.

Conclusion: There are many services available to help children with AS develop their skills and become more successful. Social skill groups, pragmatic speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and special education services may all play a role in meeting the needs of your child. Whatever approach is taken, be clear and consistent in your expectations. Patience, flexibility, and creativity combined with a realistic perspective on the needs of your child will pay off. Parenting or teaching a child with AS is hard work—but remember that our children are working hard too!

Hannah Gould works as an activity group therapist at Academy MetroWest in Natick, MA, (508) 655-9200. The Academy provides weekly social skills groups in a gym-based setting for children ages 6-14, including many with AS. Ms. Gould is also a certified teacher of students with special needs. She provides educational consultation & private tutoring services.