Autism and Relationships in Adolescence

January 7, 2013
Chelsea Budde

In December, I chose to share some thoughts about friendship skills of students with ASD in preschool and elementary school.  As students move into secondary school (grades 6 through 12), the nature of their relationships change.  Puberty becomes a factor not only in physical development, but in social-emotional development as well.  And just as physical maturity varies wildly in this life phase, so does social-emotional maturity.

Most neurotypical (NT) tweens will form strong bonds with a select few peers.  This may be a nuclear group they retain from elementary school during the transition to middle school, or it may be a mix of peers: some from the "old" school, some from the "new" school, and others from extracurriculars (sports, faith-based groups, etc.).  Some may venture into "romantic" relationships, and even that will be a spectrum.  As they near the end of middle school, there will be those who fall "head over heels in love", forsaking their friend base to explore this new relationship category.  Others may dabble, but (appropriately) don't take these early romantic entanglements too seriously.

While parental engagement in an adolescent's social life is still necessary, children may begin to rely more on peer guidance for relationship management.  And for students on the autism spectrum, they may have precious few friends in middle and high school.  This may be by design; decoding unwritten social rules is exhausting.  Perhaps maintaining a couple key connections taps the available social resources for your student with autism.

Zachary Riggins, The University of Alabama

Just as parents of NT children seek to influence relationships in their adolescent's peer groups, those who care for students with ASD should also continue to guide and explain social relationships.  People with autism often miss the nonverbal communication styles that become increasingly important in secondary school.  Consequently, they may not respond appropriately.  Their inadvertently inappropriate response may offend a peer without proper understanding of autistic neurology.  And, in extreme cases, may draw the attention of authorities.

Besides the popular approaches to socializing such as video modeling or Comic Strip Conversations, you might consider laying down some ground rules.  Quantitative guidelines such as "2 text messages per day, per friend", or "1 phone call every 3 days" might help your teen establish boundaries that are healthy both for him or her and the friend.  Don't be afraid to use visual reminders of guidelines, such as sticky notes or checklists.  And be very careful about allowing adolescents with autism onto social media outlets where their social understanding (or lack thereof) can be exploited.  Squag is a great website for tweens and teens with autism (and their siblings) to start learning about personalizing a place on the Web using a safe, secure platform.

While it is important to encourage some independence in socialization for adolescents, it is imperative, for the well-being of our children, to remain actively involved in the development of healthy social-emotional skills.  Thank you to the speech language pathologists who are are purposefully working with students to be sure these skills -- which we know to be pre-employment qualities -- are nurtured!

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