Social Skill Issues Among Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Social interactions are complex for most teenagers to navigate, but teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder face unique challenges in relating to others that can take a toll on their self-esteem and personal goals. As a parent you may find that your teen has difficulty reading others’ emotions, knowing how to respond, and transitioning from one topic to another. Parents worry that based on social skill issues, their child may experience increased anxiety and rejection in a group therapy setting. Residential treatment centers that specialize in working with teens on the autism spectrum offer social skills training in a group of individuals who share similar experiences. This helps create a non-judgmental space for teens to share their stories and insight and connect with others in a meaningful way.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
Why Do Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder Struggle with Social Skills?
Many teens on the spectrum attribute their difficulties with social skills to being seen as different from others and too few opportunities to socialize, rather than a conscious choice to isolate. However, teens on the autism spectrum often have difficulty making friends due to challenges with social anxiety, maintaining conversations outside of small talk or their special interests, understanding nonverbal cues, and tendency to withdraw when overwhelmed.
One of the reasons that teens on the spectrum have difficulties with social skills is not necessarily related to their verbal communication skills, but rather, their sensitivity to sensory input. They are very in tune with their internal sensory experience and are often hyperaware of others’ energy, which means that even a 1:1 conversation can become overstimulating. In social situations with a lot of background noise or in large groups, the sensory experience of having a conversation can become overwhelming. As they try to filter out “irrelevant information” to stay regulated, they may miss key points that other people make and have trouble understanding other people’s perspectives when they are hyperfocused on how to respond the “right way.” The pressure to follow social scripts while staying emotionally regulated can lead to conversations feeling forced or awkward, rather than natural.
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Why Do Social Skills Issues Become More Prevalent in Adolescence?
Social skills can bring about new challenges for teenagers, as social norms and expectations become more complex. The teenage years can be an uncomfortable and overwhelming period of uncertainty, changes, and realizations about oneself. Teens have a natural desire to want to fit in and feel liked by others. While relationships in younger children are formed based on proximity and acceptance, relationships through adolescence and young adulthood are more likely to be based on shared interests, trust, and communication skills.
As many teens on the autism spectrum struggle with low self-esteem and a sense of identity, they find it difficult to connect with others. While they may empathize and look up to people they feel they share similar traits with, they find it difficult to express themselves and ask for as much as they give in relationships. They may also find it harder to set boundaries with others as they are worried about how they might be perceived if they do. As social circles narrow through adolescence, teens on the spectrum are more likely to feel isolated. They may be more likely to turn to socializing online, which feels more safe and comfortable than in-person interactions. While they develop a certain set of social skills online, they may continue to experience social anxiety and social skills deficits when interacting with friends and family.
Social skills are essential to helping teens on the spectrum integrate into classrooms, workplaces, and social settings and develop personal confidence. The goal of social skills training is not just to improve interactions with neurotypical individuals, but rather to empower teens on the spectrum to use their voice to advocate for themselves, their needs in relationships, and their personal goals as they transition to independence.
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How Do Residential Treatment Centers Help Teens on the Spectrum Build Social Skills?
While in a residential treatment center, we believe it is important to offer experiential activities that help teens on the autism spectrum practice the skills they learn in individual and group therapy. When they first come to Seven Stars, they are often socially awkward and struggle to open up to others. While they may desire deeper connections, the ability to read, understand, reach out to and interact successfully with others may not come easily or they may find many social situations feel overstimulating. For some teens, they benefit more from experiential learning than psychoeducation as it helps them understand these skills in context.
At Seven Stars, students have a myriad of opportunities to create and rebuild social skills. Many teens on the spectrum struggle with experiencing the same degree of connection during group therapy or open-ended conversations and benefit from bonding over shared activities. Team building activities, recreation outings, and group activities help teens with autism build social skills.
While some teens on the spectrum may struggle to pick up on their peers’ emotions during processing groups, they may be more likely to observe behaviors or choices their peers are struggling with during group activities. As they notice choices that aren’t working in a team-building exercise, they are better able to provide feedback and support. Participating in group activities can help teens understand the underlying social dynamics or struggles with executive functioning skills that play out during these activities.
For many teens with ASD, the first step in developing confidence in their social skills is finding a supportive environment where they don’t feel pressure to mask their feelings and camouflage themselves. Through experiential learning, our recreation programming provides opportunities for meaningful challenges and learning opportunities. During off-campus activities, we see tremendous growth in social skills, as well as a student’s ability to try new things and get outside their comfort zone.
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