How to Help Your Socially Isolated Child with High Functioning Autism

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
02/22/19  3:56 PM PST
High Functioning Autism

Asperger’s Disorder is what we used to call a ‘milder’ form of Autism. That is, the young man or woman has developed language and can use it effectively.  However, according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition), it is now known as High Functioning Autism (HFA) or Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1. These are our children who have developed language and can communicate their thoughts clearly. They are bright and can develop high level skills in areas of interest and strength.

When it comes to social development, over time, we develop a skill known as pragmatics or social language.  That is, the signs we have grown to understand as non-verbal communication or social nuances.  How do we know when a person is no longer interested in our conversation? He looks away or checks his watch. How do we know when a person is interested and flirting? When there is lots of smiling, giggling, tilting of the head and when two people are standing closer than one arm’s length away from each other.  What makes us want to spend time with a friend again? When we enjoy her company because of an emotional connection or having a common interest with which you don’t have with your other friends.  

So why is it that children, adolescents and young adults with HFA seem to be socially isolated despite their ability to understand and use language? Well, because they tend to have little interest in the experience or perspective of others. They may come off as emotionally disconnected or flat.  Some may drive their point of interest too much because they don’t know that the other person got it or is no longer interested in discussing the topic. Or, they may feel that another person’s worries are silly or stupid, thereby appearing to lack sympathy or empathy.

Someone having a phone conversation with a person with HFA might find himself wanting to get off the phone.. Why? Because there is little intonation or expression in her voice and there may be too much silence or talking over.  As a result, social interactions can be unpleasant thereby making it so that other people don’t find it reinforcing to have a conversation or spend social time.

What are the Red Flag Signs of Social Isolation

How will you know if a child with HGA is feeling socially isolated? Look at his body language. Does she seem dejected? Is he not becoming involved in activities or discussions that he used to enjoy? Are you noticing that she is sitting alone during unstructured time or during lunch? Is he becoming agitated about small things that didn’t used to bother him? These are strong signs that your child is telling you that he may not be able to maintain satisfying interactions and relationships with his peers.  Let these be your red flags.

Socialization Opportunities Every.Single.Day

Just as emotional development is important and a part of the core curriculum in the public school for children without special needs, emotional and social development is especially important for children and adolescents with HFA. Although not something that can be measured by a standardized test, emotional development should be a part of a child’s everyday classroom routine. That is, opportunities for socialization, structured, semi-structured and unstructured should be built in the day. Ideally, a teacher would be able to walk around the room and coach social skill development. Additionally, parents can advocate for their child to be buddied up with a peer with whom there is a common interest. This will become the springboard for teaching conversational skills by asking questions back and forth.  This is the most integrated form of social skills training your child can get as it is not something taught in an isolated environment where your child now has to generalize without really knowing how.

Building Social Skills at Home

Parents can also help to build these social skills by inviting a friend over for a playdate and keeping an ear and eye as to how they are interacting.  First start with one peer and expand as you see good progression. If you notice that your child is struggling with the order in which they will play their preferred games, for example, pull your child away by saying, “Matthew, I need your help for a minute.” Don’t draw attention or intervene right away.  Instead, say, “Are you having a hard time choosing which game to play first? “ Once you get your response, say, “What do you think you can do?”

 I always like to ask a question to promote problem solving by the child first. If he says, “I don’t know,” say, “Well, do you think you can play your friend’s game for a while and then your game for a while?” The hope is that your child will say, “Yes!” and then you can give him the script, “Want to play your game first and then my game next?”  This empowers your child because none of it sounds like it was a command or something that you said had to happen. Instead, it sounded like your child’s idea, which makes it great, but also a strategy that can be used again in the future when in a similar situation.

For older children who are middle school or high school age, help him to select classes that are an area of real passion. This will help him to feel good about the class and perhaps if his work is exceptional, his peers will notice and he can begin to develop his identity around this interest or talent. 

Also, enroll your child is community based activities where there is a semi-structured type of activity to do that will also allow for the opportunity to socialize. You’ll need to ask lots of questions after to get an idea of what the social scene is like and coach your child on how to ask questions, join a group, or make social plans.

By using these types of strategies, you will help your child with HFA to become integrated socially at a young age and avoid isolation.

Dr. Liz Matheis


Dr. Liz Matheis is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and certified School Psychologist who specializes in working with children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Learning Disabilities, and behavioral struggles. She is also mom to three children, one with special needs. Her practice, Psychological and Education Consulting, is located in Livingston, New Jersey.


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