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Autism and Adulthood- Social Skills

Similar to education and awareness, the primary focus regarding social skills and individuals on the autism spectrum puts an emphasis on children and teenagers as they work to confront the social challenges of combating bullying, working with peers, and developing meaningful relationships. However, adult individuals on the autism spectrum face a similar set of social challenges. Adults with ASD must learn to understand and overcome these challenges as they discover life’s “hidden curriculum.” Simply put, the hidden curriculum is the “unstated rules in social situations.”1 Individuals with autism may be weary of socializing in adulthood, due to failed attempts to make friends amongst their peers resulting feelings of rejection, confusion, frustration, or even worse.2 Nevertheless, understanding and demonstrating proper social etiquette is not only important for developing and maintaining social relationships, but also necessary for appropriate public demeanor in the community and in the workplace. Failure to understand the hidden curriculum, or society’s social cues, can cause an individual to feel alienated, and can cause an individual to have problems in the office, community, or even legally.

According to Autism Speaks, individuals with autism spectrum disorders “are characterized in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.”3 Clearly, each of these challenges can contribute to difficulties following societal norms. Additionally, the understanding of when to use what social skill is dependent on the circumstance, as society is made up of different individuals from a variety of age groups, creeds, and cultures that have different rules, values, and idioms/metaphors, all of which can make the challenge of navigating the hidden curriculum seem overwhelming. Temple Grandin, a prominent author and an individual with autism, described her failure to understand the social communication of neurotypical individuals as being “like an anthropologist on Mars.”4 Today, there are more options available for individuals struggling with “fitting in” than ever before. Different technologies, research, social clubs, social networks, support groups, classes, and other services exist to assist individuals with ASD to develop the social skills necessary to effectively join in society.

This article will explore ways to navigate the hidden curriculum to avoid succumbing to societal miscues, with tips adopted from individuals on the autism spectrum and the professionals that work with them.

Assistive technology can be anything. It could be an iPad that can help an individual order a meal at a restaurant or a state-of-the-art robot that can help individuals on the autism spectrum to understand facial cues and emotions. Social networks, like the one offered by the National Autism Network (NAN), not only connect professionals and parents, but also provide a safe, fast, and easy way for individuals to express likes, dislikes, feelings, emotions, and experiences at a chosen pace. Social networks also spare the user the troubles that can arise from face-to-face contact. For example, some individuals with ASD have trouble maintaining eye contact. In the words of one man with Asperger’s syndrome, “if you insist that I make eye contact with you, when I’m finished I’ll be able to tell you how many millimeters your pupils changed while I looked into your eyes.”5 Moreover, social networks allow people to find individuals who share common interests across the globe or in their very own community.

Social Skills in Daily Life
Technology and social networks are a great way for an individual with ASD to enhance their sociability, but they are no substitute for a real-world connection between mutual friends. Unfortunately, the very characteristics of autism can make this seem like a daunting task to an individual on the autism spectrum who may display social tendencies that are different to others in the community. Individuals on the autism spectrum may desire certain aspects of a social life, such as a circle of friends who understand them, but may not want to conform to society’s idea of what typical good social skills are or may not want to become party to small-talk or office politics.2 It is important for these types of skills to be taught to an individual on the autism spectrum during their teen years, while they are still afforded an IEP to assist them with future independent living skills.

The abundance of social skill deficits in autism has led to an entire body of research dedicated to understanding and meeting the social challenges that face individuals on the autism spectrum. Research in this area has focused on social functioning throughout the lifetime from toddler years on into adulthood . There are even studies that monitor the social effects of families of individuals with autism. These studies observe the different traits of the social lives of individuals with ASD and test the efficacy of different early intervention strategies for children and social skills training programs for young adults. One study of particular interest for this specific topic focuses on the UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), which is “a manualized, social skills training intervention for adolescents and young adults.”6 The PEERS® Study examined the effects of the PEERS® program on young adults ages 18 to 23 on the autism spectrum and on how caregivers assessed the program’s effectiveness. The study found that “young adults who participated in the PEERS® program reported improved knowledge in social skills and also reported feeling lonely less frequently. Caregivers reported observing significant improvements in empathy, social responsiveness, social skills, and spending more time with friends/peers.”7

These types of studies are important because despite “the psychosocial difficulties common among young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), little to no evidence-based social skills interventions exist for this population.”8

For further information about social skill programs in your area for individuals on the autism spectrum, please visit the National Autism Network’s Resource Guide.

Relationships are difficult for everybody. They need mutual effort from both parties if they are to flourish and grow. Adolescents on the autism spectrum and their peers should learn about sexuality as their bodies change during the stages of puberty. Family should decide on the best way to address these physical and emotional changes, while maintaining a healthy and open communication with the individual. Parents should take it upon themselves to open these lines of communication because “sexuality education is arguably more important for individuals on the autism spectrum because they are less likely to learn about it from other sources such as peers, movies, etc.”9 Families and caregivers should explain how joyous and meaningful relationships can be, but should also stress how relationships can leave an individual vulnerable. Having the ability to create and build relationships is an awarding experience of an independent social life.

Typically, the appropriate use of social skills evolves over time as individuals practice social norms with a variety of different people across different settings. Children on the autism spectrum generally lack the intuition to develop social skills as they naturally interact with others. Learning social skills has nothing to do with an individual’s cognitive abilities. In fact, research has shown that individuals on the autism spectrum that have a high IQ still experience high anxiety when placed in social situations.10 It can be helpful to expose a child on the autism spectrum to the social norms that he/she will need to understand and utilize to have a fulfilling independent adult life. According to the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), a nationwide project collecting online data from families of children with autism spectrum disorders, “reports that more than 14% of participating children are taking part in a social skills group.”11 Adolescents on the autism spectrum should have the opportunity to develop healthy social skills as part of his/her transition services under their IEP.12 Here is a great resource for families who want to promote Social Thinking.