In this episode, Kristina and Adam are surprised and hurt to learn that Max is not invited to a classmate's birthday party. This is a reality shared by many families with school children, but for those who have children with autism spectrum disorders, it hits to the core of their fears over their child's future. Parents of children with autism and Asperger's know that the central feature of this disability is impairment in social skills, and they work hard to improve their child's skills. When their child gets a social slight, like not being invited to a birthday party, it emphasizes that they still have a long way to go.
Individuals with autism and Asperger's have great potential for success in society. As for all students, the instruction in academics and vocational skills will help determine what type of job they will have as an adult. Yet it will be their social skills that will ultimately determine whether they get to keep their job or not. This puts a huge emphasis on learning how to adapt to the social world during childhood and adolescence, especially for those born with a social impairment. Kristina and Adam, for example, have a therapist (Gaby) who helps Max learn appropriate social skills, and who also oversees a playdate with Emily to give Max an opportunity to practice these skills. Gabby provides him with prompts and options for handling the various social skills he encounters during playtime, such as sharing, taking turns, listening to the wishes of others, and how to accept losing the game. By doing so, Max will hopefully learn how to better respond to friends during other playtimes, too.
Social playdates are so important for those with autism spectrum disorder, since learning social skills is very difficult. For example, Max needs to learn how to lose gracefully. Nor is he alone - in fact, many with Asperger's have great difficulty losing at games. This is due to their concrete thinking process: either I win or I lose horribly, either I get an A on my paper or I fail miserably. They struggle with the idea that there are shades of gray between extremes and often do not see alternative solutions to social situations. They know that if they win, they will feel great; if they lose, they will be very, very upset - and so winning is so much better! Consequently they must win at everything, which makes potential friends angry and reluctant to include them in games and birthday parties.
As hard as it is for parents that have children with autism and Asperger's to hear that their child is excluded due to inappropriate behavior, they nonetheless need to hear about the skills their child lacks. Often parents are the last to know which skills should be targeted - Kristina and Adam were very surprised to learn Max was excluded because of his behavior when he loses a game, for example - since they see the child only within the family group. But teachers and age-mates who encounter the child in the wider environment on a daily basis (and without parents around) will no doubt recognize which skills need to be taught.
Does this mean that parents should wait until their child is rejected from birthday parties or for teachers to let them know what skills to address? No. During their child's IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting at school, parents should ask for a formal social skills assessment. There are many commercially available evaluation forms for parents and schools to select from, and periodic assessments can help to keep everyone on track with gauging the progress - or lack of it - in skill development. Children like Max possess great opportunities for making friends and for social involvement, but unless they are taught how to lose gracefully, how to pick up social cues from others, and how to contribute to social activities in appropriate ways, they will find it hard to make and keep friends.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.