Will social skills help with an autism diagnosis

QN: My child’s just been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What does this mean for his future –  will Social Skills actually help? 

My brother was diagnosed with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome (now simply known as an Autism Spectrum Disorder) at the age of two. 

He had many symptoms that could be considered typical of ASD, including; difficulty engaging with others socially, discomfort with eye contact, preference for routine and repetition (and a tendency to become upset when this didn’t happen). 

My  brother participated in Social Skills classes with a Speech Pathologist from when he was three years old until he was 13. 

He was explicitly taught about how people express emotion, how to respond to others’ emotions, how to behave socially and how to cope with change. 

I asked him to share some experiences of his childhood in social skills classes, what he remembers and where he is now. 

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Tell us about yourself 

My name is Alexander Darling, I’m a 25-year-old journalist living and working in Horsham, Western Victoria. At three I was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, called Asperger’s Syndrome back then. 

How did your Autism Spectrum Disorder affect your childhood? 

I understand it hasn’t affected me as severely as many other people on the spectrum, but I remember times when I would get very nervous or upset if routines changed: things like being driven to kindergarten via a different route. 

I was told I couldn’t always read non-verbal social cues as well as other people. I think in hindsight the most distinct feature for me was I couldn’t immediately empathise or think about how other people were feeling, and that sometimes affected when I wanted to talk to people and recognising if they were actually willing to talk to me. 

In my first year of primary school I think no little kids are great socially, so I had some good friends I could kick the footy with. The differences between myself and my classmates probably became more pronounced when I became a teenager: Everyone was socialising and forming friendship groups, and I realised I didn’t really like the things they did. I had very narrow interests and I felt anxious talking to people that I didn’t really know unless it was about those interests.   

What support did you receive? 

I got a lot of support from a young age due to a young diagnosis. I was lucky that people identified and knew my situation and catered for it, which meant that it was a lot less stressful for myself and my parents than it could have been.  

My earliest memories of social skills are of the take home tasks. We were told to try and have conversations with people and what the structure of that is. I remember they told us that the first thing after exchanging niceties was to ask someone a question. That’s something that has stuck with me and I still use today – I would have been maybe eight or nine when I learned it.  

We also got given a handout with pictures of facial expressions, to try and identify how the people making them were feeling. We had a discussion around how people are reacting and how we can respond. Someone told me; “So your dad comes home from work is slamming doors and growling is that a moment when you try and talk to him?” The answer is obviously no, but I had to have very explicit training of what situations can occur and then lots of home practice for the skills to transfer and become what I use now. 

I got to the point when I was 13 or 14 where I thought “I don’t want to do this anymore”. it seemed like there was nothing else to learn by being in social skills,  the rest would have to be what I could pick up by myself – using the knowledge from the social skills classes as a lasting guide – and seeing what did and didn’t work in the real world. 

I’ve heard it said it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, and if you do it for long enough you can read more subtle social cues. I still make mistakes at 25 years old, but after being introduced to obvious facial expressions and cues slowly, it became easier to have empathetic responses to people. 

How do you think your Social Skills training helps you still? 

Social Skills is really a long term goal, because while you are more implicitly learning things and applying at primary and secondary school I didn’t start really consciously applying and using it until I found people who had the same interests as me at University, and I really wanted to engage with them and learn more about them. 

I remember a story my mother told me when I was young of another adult (18) with ASD who used the all the social skills training they had accumulated every single day. At the time thought it would take a lot of brain power, but by the time I got to that stage I realised a lot of it was subconscious.  

I’m still using the instruction that had been given to me in that concentrated social skills today. Skills such as maintaining eye contact, not sitting too close to people, not trying to go for physical contact unless I’m sure people will appreciate it. It’s a long haul. 

With my job at the moment I’m more able to recognise emotions in the tone of people’s voices as much as facial expressions. If I call up about a story and they seem distressed, I can now read those cues and use a softer tone of voice and make sure my line of questioning isn’t inappropriate. I wouldn’t have been able to respond like that if I hadn’t have had facial recognition or empathy training when I was seven or eight years old. 

What is your most significant memory of Social Skills ? 

I freely admit there were many times I was in classes where I absolutely didn’t want to be there.  

There was nothing I would rather have been doing than playing a computer game, kicking a football or anything else that didn’t require the brain power of trying to socialise. My parents definitely cajoled me a bit: More than the difficulty of the sessions and the annoyance, it was the chocolate milkshake I got at the corner store afterwards I remember about those classes.  

That meant more than anything, most of the time I was just looking forward to the milkshake next week. It’s a strategy that works. It’s the good memories that stick with you from your childhood. 

What is the hardest thing you’ve learnt? 

That there is value in not getting it right– failing for success –. Socialising can be very subjective.  

Almost on a daily basis I have conversations where I think I could have done something better after they’ve ended – that people dislike me as a result of what I did or didn’t do.  

But more often than not the next time I’ve gone and talked to them they have been fine. From my perspective all of this tells me that no social blunder is as ever as serious as you think it is, so long as you try and be polite. So long as your heart is in the right place other people will see that too. 

You don’t need to dominate a conversation or be a social butterfly. It’s about just participating in a way that’s genuine. 

Anything else you thought our Parents should know? 

I’m Alex Darling first, and a person on the Autism Spectrum second. By virtue of all the training I got I believe people see my personality before they see my disability, and I know that that’s the end goal of all speech pathology. 

I hope that is something parents can take away, that their kid is their kid, with unique personality traits, and them being on the Autism Spectrum is secondary.   

If parents are worried their kids won’t be like all the others – that’s the truth of it. But it’s by no means a drawback, it can actually be an advantage.