Herman & Associates
Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Social Behavior Problems
People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have trouble with many aspects involving social skills and conversation despite normal or above intellectual ability. Their problems understanding more complex social interactions is a primary concern and diagnostic symptom of ASD.
Limited interest in others -
Problems adjusting to new social situations - A person with ASD may seemingly interact in a normal way with family at home, but signs of ASD are more apparent in unfamiliar circumstances. These individuals often suffer from poor peer relationships and tend to be withdrawn. They enjoy solitary activities and may become abrupt in an effort to ensure solitude. They often feel different from others and may be prone to teasing growing up as they are viewed as odd. Although they desire social interaction, they often exhibit unusual social conduct and seem unaware of rules of social conduct. Their social interactions are more mechanical as they lack natural intuition in social situations. Consequently, they may demonstrate inappropriate behavior and may say or do things that may offend or annoy others as they don’t know a more tactful alternative, appearing inadvertently ill-mannered or inconsiderate. They are generally not in tune with other kids’ social activities and are indifferent to peer pressure. These individuals are often confused by emotions of others and don’t recognize subtle cues or read body language effectively. Additionally, they lack subtlety and precision in the expression of their own emotions.
Trouble applying social norms - Individuals with ASD routinely have trouble understanding and applying social norms. The reality is that social norms are not written, rigid, or explicitly stated. They are regularly inferred by others, which is nearly impossible for the individual with ASD to detect. Compounding their problem is a tendency for individuals with ASD to think in terms of extremes. This means that they see situations as either all or none, black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. They generally have very little ability to see social norms as existing on a continuum, with most situations falling into areas of grey. Because of their cognitive style, many people with ASD commit unintentional social errors by adhering rigidly to a social norm. For example, if a college dormitory has a "no boys in your room" policy, the coed who has ASD will likely turn in their roommate to the RA should she discover her roommate in their room with her boyfriend. She will likely have a hard time understanding why the RA might not take the complaint seriously or why her roommate is mad at her. This is an example of how individuals with ASD are rule-bound, demand other's strict adherence to the rules, and have trouble interpretating the intent of the rule.
Trouble initiating and sustaining friendships - Often times people with ASD have a limited ability to initiate and sustain conversations. They have a history of poor social interactions and frequently an awareness of their social awkwardness and anxiety. This insight undermines their self-confidence at initiating and maintaining conversations. Although they desire friendships and social connections, they understandably have trouble finding the courage to initiate conversations, especially with people they do not know. When they do have "close friends", they will often report their friendships as much closer then they actually are. The other person involved in their "friendship" may rate their interaction with the individual with ASD as an acquaintance.
Problems reading nonverbal social cues - Since many individuals with ASD have a tendency to hold an overly simplistic interpretation of the world, it is no surprise that they have difficulty with interpretation of implicit communications. They struggle to read social cues from others and will often not know what to do in a social situation unless explicitly told by another. Although they may learn how to respond in a given social situation, they have great difficulty generalizing to even the next slight variant of that situation. Although the new social situation is similar to another one they have navigated, they are puzzled in responding to the new one because their underlying rigid cognitive style recognizes that the new dilemma is not the same as previous ones. Their lack of cognitive flexibility often prevents generalization of previously learned social skills.
Literal interpretations - Problems with cognitive flexibility also produces a literal interpretation of information. This makes it nearly difficult for some students with ASD to pick up on the hidden messages, double entendres, and exaggerations in jokes. For example, when a teenager uses the phrase "that's bad", they are probably indicating that they like that item, behavior, or outcome. Individuals with ASD have little means of accurately interpreting "that's bad" and are equally as likely to view it as a negative outcome, rather then an endorsement or a favorable statement. Similarly, they tend to have great difficulty deciphering meanings when people use metaphors or sarcasm.
Repetitive behaviors - Lack of cognitive flexibility also compels individuals with ASD toward routines and repetitive tasks because they are predictable. Predictability helps us feel safe, which reduces our anxiety. One way to increase predictability within a discussion is to draw the conversation toward an area of familiarity or high interest where we know a lot about the topic. Individuals with ASD often lead conversations into these areas because they feel comfortable discussing that topic. The need for predictability can cause problems in relationships with others because others can interpret that behavior as controlling, which it is. Lack of communication and understanding can lead to many power struggles and conflicts within relationships.
Gullibility - Another area of difficulty for many individuals with ASD involves gullibility. Individuals with ASD are often teased and bullied at school and in the work force. Because of their social ineptness, they are commonly lonely and needy of friendships. Since they often have trouble with social judgment and interpreting communication from others, they tend to follow directions from other's explicitly. This makes them prime targets to be bullied and setup for more complex social transgressions from others. For instance, a child with ASD might be sent by one student (the bully) to verbally assault another. The ASD student may not understand why they got into trouble and will likely not have the ability to detect and reject future suggestions from that bully. The child with ASD does probably understand that they got attention and momentary friendship from the bully, which may sometimes act as a reinforcer for future interactions and partnerships with the bully. Filling the social loneliness for just a moment, especially from someone as powerful as the bully, is better then not at all. Despite people do despite things and people with ASD are often trying very hard to figure out friendships. As a result, they sometimes try to acquire friends by doing extraordinary favors, or by giving them money or expensive personal items.
Egocentrism - Individuals with ASD tend to be egocentric with little reciprocity in their social conversations. Whereas most individuals have their radar pointed outward, adjusting their conversations and interactions for the people involved and the social context, individuals with ASD tend to have their radars pointed inward. They are overly indulgent in their own fantasy world and special interests (e.g., dinosaurs, Star Wars, Japanese animation, movies, weather), and consequently, commit additional unintentional social errors. They tend to steer conversations and play interactions into their fantasy world. Many times they appear to talk "at" others and not "to" others. This is because individuals with ASD are not accurately reading subtle social cues directed at them from others. They can not tell when other's lose interest in their topic, or play activity, because the radar is pointed inward. They are unaware and uncaring of the listener's affect. There is little reciprocity in their relationships and many conversations turn into a monologue. Children with ASD tend to either prefer to play alone, or script out play scenarios for their playmates. Because of their rigidity and lack of effective coping skills, these children can escalate in anger rather quickly when other deviate from their play script. Additionally, they tend to lack tact in their social communications, not knowing how to sculpt their language so the listener can hear it best. Their comments can be too honest, which runs the risk of hurting others emotionally. Thus, individuals with ASD can appear "bossy" and inadvertently drive others away. When confronted with these errors, people with ASD have great difficulty taking the perspective of others and struggle to understand why the other person is mad at them.
Problem with perspective taking - Problems with perspective taking can lead to difficulties with self-observation. When one is unable to observe oneself in a conversation then it is nearly impossible to generate any self-awareness. The individual with ASD often has trouble monitoring eye gaze and sometimes is caught violating personal boundaries by staring at another person's breasts or crotch. This obviously makes other's uncomfortable and can lead to disciplinary actions at school or at the workplace, and eventually sexual harassment charges.
Problems with proxemics and boundaries - Struggles with perspective taking lead to problems with proxemics and boundaries. Proxemics is a term used to describe the acceptable physical distance between two individuals in conversation. This varies greatly by culture, but many individuals with ASD do not understand appropriate physical space in social contexts and tend to stand too close to others when talking. This makes the listener uncomfortable and they often begin backing away from the person with ASD, who struggles to read their backing away behavior. Sometimes this leads to a chase game, whereby the person with ASD is consistently moving forward and the other is moving backward. The individual with ASD can also make a proximity error in the opposite direction, backing up and carrying on a conversation as if they were standing closer to the listener.
Varying awareness of their social awkwardness - Individual's with ASD are typically aware of their social awkwardness. They desire friendships, but struggle to understand why they are rejected by others. They realize that they need help, but they are often unable to utilize techniques that facilitate social interactions. This tends to increase social anxiety, especially with other's they are attracted to. For instance, adult males with ASD frequently become overwhelmed with feelings (e.g., anxiety, sexual tension, fear) when talking with attractive women. While this is a common experience for most people, adults with ASD struggle more then most because of the intensity of their emotions and their decreased ability to regulate emotions.
Memorization of social protocols - Some very bright adults with ASD memorize a list of social rules and employ them as needed to minimize social awkwardness. This can have some positive effects. For example, an adult with ASD can learn to look at a person's face with whom they are having a conversation. They learn to look at their forehead, cheek, or mouth instead of their eyes, which would be far too intimate for them. They learn that conversations go better when the other person feels attended to. Similarly, they can memorize a list of social topics that people generally enjoying discussing and rely on that list when they feel anxious in conversation. Despite their best efforts, many adults with ASD continue to experience poor social interactions.
In summary, individuals with ASD have a wide variety of social problems. They may exhibit any number of the symptoms described above. Each person with ASD is unique and special in their own way, with relative social strengths and weaknesses. The key is helping people with ASD is a clear understanding of their uniqueness.