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Why Does My Autistic Child Struggle Socially and How Can I Help Them

Photo by mohamed Abdelgaffar from Pexels

Social dysfunction is often one of the core characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It can manifest itself in a wide range of behaviors, from monopolizing conversations to a single topic that nobody else appears to be interested in, to completely avoid any sort of social interactions at all. While there is no fixed pattern to social struggles, it’s almost always one of the major identifying characteristics of ASD, and usually, the one that tends to be the most obvious when you interact with somebody with autism. 

In the case of a high-functioning individual with autism, social skills deficits can often be so minor that they go completely unnoticed in casual conversations. People with high-functioning autism tend to adopt coping methods, or are able to acquire and learn social skills. With the right training and practice, they can make huge progress in terms of social interactions, but will almost always struggle with some degree of ineptitude or discomfort socially. 

On the other hand, low-functioning autistic people tend to always have immediate, obvious difficulties when interacting socially. However, they do have an advantage over high-functioning individuals as they tend to be more inwardly focused; as a result, they tend to suffer less anxiety in regards to fitting into common social situations. 

The Connection Between Social Skills and Autism

The following social skills problems tend to be common in ASD:

  • Inability or difficulty to read non-verbal communication cues such as body language or facial expressions
  • Becoming overwhelmed with sensory stimuli
  • Difficulty or delays in acquiring verbal communication skills
  • Obsessive or repetitive behaviors
  • Insistence on adherence to fixed routines

These traits combined often make it hugely difficult for people with ASD to develop the basic social skills that the majority of us don’t even give a second thought to. This can often be misinterpreted as a desire to avoid socializing, but in most cases, that couldn’t be any more untrue. Most autistic individuals do want to interact with others, but simply don’t know how to do so easily. In turn, this can lead to significant frustration. 

A child with autism may have outbursts or throw tantrums in social situations, or express themselves inappropriately as a result of struggling to either understand their place and role in a social situation, or make themselves known to others. In some cases, individuals with autism will be highly socially anxious and overthinking and overanalyzing the situation when socializing can make things worse. 

Some people with ASD are unable to fully understand their own communication issues, and cannot recognize how their way of communicating might be making others feel uncomfortable, such as being unable to or unwilling to converse outside certain topic areas or monopolizing conversations. 

Dealing with Social Skills Issues

Since social skills cover such a wide range of capabilities, it can be difficult to deal with social dysfunction as the parent of an autistic child. Social skills include:

  • Sensory perception
  • Understanding of context in a social setting
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Inferential and analytical skills

In terms of social skills training for children with autism, there is only a small amount of research so far on the results. However, what currently exists suggests that it tends to be hindered by a lack of emphasis on the importance of social skill development and effectively implementing it. And, social skills training that takes place mainly away from the general student population tends to be far less effective compared to training taking place in a classroom setting alongside neurotypical kids, who can often help children with autism learn social skills through observations and interactions. 

School-based programs are often more effective for improving social skills compared to programs offered in other environments, suggesting that training social skills in a social environment is the best option. 

How You Can Help Your Child

If you are the parent of an autistic child who is struggling socially, the good news is that there are several things you can do in order to help him or her fit in and better interact with their peers. You might want to try:

Social Stories: Using social stories for autism is a helpful and effective way to help your child learn about various social situations outside of the social setting. This can be useful for autistic children who feel better around routine and predictable situations as the social story can help them get a better idea of how interaction at the park should be with a friend, for example. 

Carol Gray’s social stories for children with autism can be extremely useful in helping your child gain a better understanding of some common social situations, what to expect, and how to behave in them. They are typically in an easy-to-read comic book style with pictures that appeal to kids. You can find social story examples for autistic children here at Autism Parenting Magazine. The magazine has plenty of social story examples that you can use when practicing social skills with your child along with numerous other resources that you might find helpful. 

Start with the Basics: Your child might want to interact with others, but struggle to understand how it is done or what to do in a social situation. Some children with autism struggle to understand the concept of a friend. In this case, it’s best to start with the basics. Start by helping them understand what a friend is. It may help to be literal, rather than abstract in this case. For example, instead of saying that ‘a friend is somebody who is always there for you and loves you for who you are’, say something like ‘a friend is somebody who you spend time with, talk to about your hobbies and sometimes they will say nice things to you if you are feeling sad’. Speak to them about any people that they feel are their friends and why. 

Reduce Social Stressors: It is not uncommon for children with autism to become stressed in social situations. This can be due to a variety of reasons, from sensory overloads in busy social situations to anxiety concerning others’ perceptions of them. If your child is struggling socially because they tend to get stressed and anxious when they are trying to interact with others, learn what’s making them feel this way and address it. 

For example, if your child struggles with lots of people, arrange their social activities to be quiet and uncrowded. Meet with one friend at a time, if that’s what it takes. If they are anxious about how others perceive them and overthinking their social performance, a good therapist trained in autism and anxiety can help. 

Get Support from School: There are numerous ways in which your child’s school can assist them in improving their social skills. Speak to your child’s teachers and request that they are included as much as possible in things like buddy programs or circle of friends programs. Some schools offer self-esteem and self-awareness lessons or structured social skills lessons that might be extremely helpful for your child. If your child attends a general school with neurotypical kids, a class talk on autism can help their peers better understand them and accept their differences. 

Get Support Online: One way to get support is to get online. Here you can connect with other parents of autistic children through support groups and forums. These online communities can provide a wealth of information and resources on how to support your child’s social development. As well as emotional support for parents. The Autism Speaks website offers information on the latest research, resources for families, and ways to get involved in advocacy efforts. Crowdfunding websites allow families to raise money for therapy and other support services. If your child’s struggles are related to medication, you may be able to join a lawsuit against manufacturers of drugs like Tylenol through

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to support your autistic child is to be patient, understanding, and willing to learn. Your child can develop the skills to thrive socially and emotionally with proper support. For many kids with autism, fitting in socially can be a struggle. Understanding why your child struggles and how to best help them is the first step to supporting them in getting a happy and fulfilling social life.

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