The Importance of Social Connection for Those with ASD
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- interpreting the thoughts and feelings of others
- coming up with social solutions for friendship dilemmas
- understanding body language
- initiating and maintaining conversations
It is easy to assume that a person who isn’t making eye contact while introducing him- or herself doesn’t have the desire to connect. The social expectation is that someone will look you in the eye when saying hello. For many people, this nonverbal cue helps to relay the message that you are paying attention and interested in connecting. Other people, however, may need a work-around, such as the following social script: Hi, it’s nice to meet you, John. My name is Sam. Sorry I’m not looking at you, I don’t mean to offend. It’s just that sometimes eye contact makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Do you like action movies? This script provides Sam with a way to work toward his particular social goal of finding someone to watch action movies with and conveys the message that he is paying attention without the use of sustained eye contact.
Debunking the Myth
I am routinely reminded that connections come in different shapes and forms. Recently, when at a sushi restaurant with a group of young adults with autism, I noticed something I had never seen before. With only a brief pause for ordering their lunch, two group members, sitting directly next to one another, were having a back-and-forth conversation entirely through their smart phones. Despite the fact that they were close enough to bump knees, the complete content of their conversation and the crux of their connection was occurring solely through text message. The typical components of connection—engagement, reciprocity, and mutual respect—were all there. However, the form was new to me.
Part of the education and acceptance must come from the community. Just as we acknowledge that everyone defines friendship differently, we must accept that not all social interactions are going to look the same. Only with this acceptance will we begin to break down the societal myth that those on the autism spectrum prefer exclusion to inclusion.
For decades, placement in large institutions was the standard way we supported individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. After those institutions closed, quality care was defined primarily as ensuring someone was safe and had food, shelter, and medical care. However important these basic needs are, they are not considered prominent indicators of a quality life. At the end of your life, are you going to recall the quality of your dental care or the feeling of being valued by the social roles you inhabited as a brother, uncle, assistant store clerk, and friend?
At YAI, we’re asking questions and listening to the children and adults we support, as well as their family members, to ensure we understand what is important to them. We’re learning that having meaningful connections with others and valuable social roles is fundamental, and it feels like we’re finally starting to get it right.