My son with Aspergers has dropped out of social activities
A parent is concerned about their child’s anxiety around social involvements
One of the key challenges for children with Aspergers and autism is learning the social skills to make and keep friends
Question: I have become worried about my 14-year-old son who has Aspergers syndrome. He has become much more anxious about going out and has dropped out of lots of activities. With Aspergers, he has always struggled to fit in and make friends and this has become harder as he gets older and the children in his class become teenagers.
He had one good friend, who was loyal to him, but unfortunately he moved to a different part of the country last year. He is in mainstream school and the school are good about accommodating him, and academically he is doing fine.
I just want to help him be happier.
Answer: One of the key challenges for children with Aspergers and autism is learning the social skills to make and keep friends. The teenage years bring special challenges as the norms and rules of social groups become particularly hard for teenagers with Aspergers to read, so they can often feel excluded. This can lead to anxiety about social relationships which they can deal with by avoiding going out and this can make the situation worse, as they miss the benefits of friendships and participating in activities they like and which are good for them.
Your son has the additional challenge of losing a good friend which is hard to deal with even at the best of times.
Below are some ideas which might help.
Find social outlets around his special interests
With most children, friendships are often built around shared passions and interests – and children with Aspergers are no different. The challenge can be that their interests are rarefied, not typical for their age group and sometimes obsessive. However, there are ways to use their special interests as opportunities to help them make friends and participate in beneficial activities. For example, one child I worked with who was obsessed with collecting and building model aircraft joined a local club where he could meet others who shared his interests. Another child who had extensive knowledge of nature and animals, got involved in a local nature group where his knowledge was valued. And another who was obsessed with reading about history attended special evening classes in the subjects he loved. You don’t mention in your question what your son’s special interests are, but it is worth thinking about how you can use these to help him participate and meet friends. There are also lots of voluntary groups who provide activities and opportunities for teenagers with Aspergers to meet one another as well as advice and support for parents such as asiam.ie or aspire.ie.
Consider friendship options outside his current peer group
Sometimes as a teenager with ASD, the hardest people to get on with are teenagers the same age who have very particular codes about how you fit in and who can be intolerant of teens who behave differently. However, younger and older children can be more accepting of these differences and form friendships based on shared interests. Consider other people in your teenager’s life who could provide friendship to him. This could include extended family members and family friends who might commit to attending events and activities with him.
Help him overcome barriers
Think also how you can address the reasons that caused him to drop out of the recent social activities he was involved in. There might be ways of helping him re-engage and participate. For example, you could talk to the leaders about what exactly happened and what they could do to assist him take part (eg by educating other children in the group about Aspergers or even assigning him a buddy who can help him take part). One child I worked with dropped out of a scouts group as he felt too much pressure to participate in some activities. Once this was explored with the group leaders they made a special arrangement to allow him to “tune out” for a bit when he felt under pressure (he would sit back and read a book) and this allowed him to continue to participate in the group.
You mention that the school has been helpful so I wonder if there is a guidance counsellor or year head or another teacher who could help. It might be worth scheduling a meeting with them early in the new term when you can present your concerns and explore different school-based options to help.
Teach social skills
Many of the issues for children with Aspergers centre on not having the appropriate social skills to help them participate. However, social skills can be taught and learnt by young people. Your son could benefit from individual or group coaching that could help him to overcome the problems he faces. There are lots of online resources to help children with Aspergers and autism and there are many professionals and services who can provide this support. In addition to the websites mentioned above, have a look at autism.ie, autismireland.ie and shineireland.com for suggestions.
Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He has published 14 books including Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children. See solutiontalk.ie