Fact sheet on communication issues with Autism and Asperger's syndrome,  the most common pervasive developmental disorders


Children on the autism spectrum often can focus on the 'detail' within communication but miss the overall 'plot'. This can make them the target of bullying at school due to their unusual behavior, language, interests and tendency to tell others what to do. Their impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues can lead to conflict or being ignored by others. Children with Asperger's syndrome may be extremely literal and may have difficulty interpreting and responding to sarcasm or banter. A child or teen with Asperger’s syndrome is often puzzled by this mistreatment, unaware of what has been done incorrectly.


Children on the autism spectrum, particularly the milder end, often want to be social, but have trouble making friends. This can lead to later withdrawal and antisocial behavior, especially in adolescence. At this stage of life especially, they risk being drawn into unsuitable and inappropriate friendships and social groups. Learning how to make appropriate friendships can minimize these problems, reduce bullying and lead to better relationships with people who aren't on the autism spectrum. The sooner these skills are learned, the better.


Social skills are complex and hard to learn

Non-autistic people often forget how complex social skills are, and how long it takes to learn them even when not affected by autism or Asperger's syndrome. Tony Attwood lists some essential skills for children to make friends as:

• Knowing how to enter into other children's activities

• Knowing how to welcome other children into one's own games or activities

• Recognizing when and how to help others, and seeking help from others

• Providing compliments at the right times and knowing how to respond to compliments

• Knowing the right time and way to offer criticism

• Being able to accept and handle criticism from others

• Incorporating the ideas and suggestions of others into an activity

• Give and take in conversation and activities

• Managing disagreement with compromise instead of aggression or emotional outbursts

• Recognizing and understanding the opinions of others

• Understanding facial expressions and body language

• Empathizing with others in both positive and negative situations

• The appropriate behavior and comments to maintain solitude or end the interaction.


Non-autistic children usually learn all these social skills in an unconscious and intuitive way, by observing and interacting with everyone around them. The tendency of children on the autism spectrum to focus on 'detail' instead of the overall 'plot' means they are usually better off learning these social skills in a more concrete way. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders can be helped to learn how to make friends through two main ways: accommodation and assimilation.


Accommodation - changing the environment

Accommodation involves changing the physical or social environment of the child to encourage positive social interactions.


Invite friends home

Encourage friendships by inviting other children to your home. Remember that children on the autism spectrum don't necessarily befriend children of their own age or gender. Often their specific interests draw them to people rather than a similar age or being the same gender. It can be worth asking your child's teacher if there are children at school they seem to connect with. You can then arrange for potential friend to come to your home for a 'play date'. Your child will usually be more relaxed in the home environment and will be more able to work on appropriate social interaction.


Activities that encourage social interaction

An example of this is placing the child in supervised activities such as after school care, vacation care, Scouts or a sport, where a focus on activities with adult supervision can reduce problems with poor social interaction. This is especially useful if the activity centers on an existing interest or obsession of the child.


Peer mentors

Peer mentors have proven to be an effective strategy for children on the autism spectrum. A classmate of similar age who interacts positively with the child is chosen to act as a mentor. The difficulties of Autism Spectrum Disorders is explained to the peer mentor in an age-appropriate way, so that the mentor can help the autistic child to learn appropriate communication skills. Teachers and parents can guide the peer mentor in this, so that social skills are learned in the natural environment - among other children.


Awareness raising

Another example of accommodation is raising awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Parents can explain to their child's teacher about the accommodations required in the classroom, and in some cases, the same process could be explained to children in the classroom. When meeting other families, it can help to explain your child's Autism Spectrum Disorder in the hope that the parents and their children with respond in an understanding manner to any inappropriate behavior or communication from your child.


Linking up with children who have similar interests or are on the spectrum

Children on the autism spectrum often have special interests that few other children will enjoy, or have an equal passion for. Parents may be able to use their parent's support group or local autism/Aspergers association to find other children with a similar interest, whether it be spiders, dolls or a cartoon character. Children on the autism spectrum often find it much easier to relate to each other than non-autistic children, particularly if they share common interests.


assimilation - developing your child's social skills

Accommodation looks at changes in the environment. Assimilation focuses on changes in your child. In a sense, accommodation provides the opportunities for your child to make friends - assimilation gives your child the social skills to encourage friendships.


The theory of mind holds that problems with not understanding that other people think differently than themselves, individuals on the autism spectrum will have difficulties in social interactions with other people. Children may not understand and become upset if someone does not know the answer to a question. They will have trouble anticipating what others will say or do in a variety of situations, and their difficulty in understanding the thoughts and emotions of others can make the autistic child appear self-centered, eccentric, or uncaring. There are many strategies to help a child develop their social skills in this area.


Picture cards to learn facial expressions and body language

Parents can draw picture cards for their child that show a variety of emotions in faces and body language. This can help their child to interpret the visual cues for when someone is getting angry, bored, sad, frustrated or happy. The next stage could be using a video camera to record someone showing these emotions and helping your child to recognize the cues.


Learning to ask questions

Children with autism or Asperger's syndrome often lack the 'give and take' of conversations. They may dominate a conversation, and only talk about their own interests. A crucial skill they need to learn is to spend time listening to others, realizing that other children have their interests too, and asking questions about their interests. One example is to make a game of question and answers, where the parent and child take turns asking questions about each other and providing a short answer. This can be explained to the child that a good conversation is where both people get to share the talking equally.


Another suggestion is to make a game out of asking questions. This can be developed as a game where the child is a famous journalist or interviewer. At first, you may give your child a list of easy questions to ask such as age, work, school or hobbies to suit the person they are interviewing. Asking questions can be rewarded by the child seeing their results form the front page of their very own newspaper, or if you have the skills and equipment, videotape the exchange and make your own news channel. With time, you can encourage your child to 'interview' others at school or in the neighborhood and generalize these new listening and questioning skills to all areas of their life.


Social Stories

Social stories were developed by Carol Gray as an effective tool for helping children on the autism spectrum to learn many skills, including communication skills. The stories are brief, may be backed with visual imagery, and use set types of sentence and structure to encourage new skills. An examples is:

"Not Listening"
It's important to look at people and stop what I'm doing when they have something to tell me.
Sometimes grown-ups tell me very important things that I need to know.
If I don't look & listen I might miss something important and make the grown-ups angry.
I know it's wrong to keep doing what I'm doing when grown-ups want me to listen.
I will listen to grown-ups when they talk to me.

Click here to learn more about using social stories.


Role plays

Role plays can give a child the time needed to learn general social skills. The parent can role play the typical situations their child may have trouble with: initiating a conversation, joining in another child's activity, or inviting another child to play a game. In real life, this can be very difficult for the child as time may be necessary to interpret facial expression, understand the body language and figure out appropriate responses. A role play gives the child all the time needed to work through these processes, and hopefully increase their speed and social skills with practice. Where a family has a video camera, it can be worthwhile to videotape these role plays. Most children with autism or Asperger's syndrome learn more effectively in a visual way, so replaying the role play on video can be an excellent way to show your child what they did well, or analyze what didn't go so well. Remember to be very encouraging and supportive when reviewing the video footage! You can also freeze-frame on relevant bits to give your child time to analyze facial expressions or body language.


helping your child to choose friends

Children with autism or Aspergers syndrome often appear to have a one-dimensional view of their own personality or that of others. When asked to what they or themselves or other children are like, descriptions relating to height, age or appearance are used. If personality is described, it will tend to focus simply on whether someone is 'nice' or not.


Non-autistic children usually are quick to intuitively learn about the personalities of others. They pick up the inclination of other children to be chatty, naughty in the classroom, friendly, manipulative or angry. Children on the spectrum often miss these cues and may try to form friendships with children who aren't suited to them. Tony Attwood recommends using the popular Mr. Men stories by Roger Hargreaves which describe a range of personality types such as Little Miss Chatterbox and Mr. Nosey and Mr. Grumpy.


A visual way parents can help their child to identify the personality traits of other children is getting their child to select an animal they feel represents someone's personality. Parents can play a constructive role in their child's life by encouraging them to analyze the personalities of others so that they can choose more appropriate friends as they get older.


Click here to read about a five-step model for helping your child make and keep friends.


Adults on the autism spectrum still wrestle with many of these issues. Useful insights for parents can be gained by reading Marc Segar's Survival Guide for People Living with Asperger's Syndrome. Marc was an adult on the spectrum who wrote this guide for others, with a focus on social skills for living in a non-autistic world.


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Click here for the full range of autism and Asperger's fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
Click here to go to the Adults On The Spectrum page for how late teens and adults can improve their social skills.
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation.

Children with Asperger syndrome, Autism or PDD-NOS face many difficulties in making and maintaining friendships, particularly with non-autistic children. This fact sheet provides accommodation and assimilation strategies for parents to help their child develop social and friendship skills.