Interaction and communication
Young people on the autism spectrum may interact with others in unconventional ways. Their habit of making eye contact and responding with expressions and gestures may differ from their neurotypical peers. They may also find it harder to understand other people’s emotions and express their own. As a result, making friends and maintaining friendships is often a challenge.
“Just because I don’t look a person in the eye doesn’t mean I’m not interested. I look away during the conversation so that I can focus on what’s being said.”
Autism is typically associated with varying degrees of difficulty in understanding and using language and in interpreting gestures and expressions. Young people with ASD may understand language and interpret spoken language literally. They may be unable to understand slang, sarcasm or irony and various figures of speech. Young people with ASD may occasionally struggle to process something that has been said and remember it afterwards.
Young people with ASD may find it hard to imagine various situations beyond their immediate sphere of experiences. This makes it harder to adapt to new situations and to interpret the behaviour and actions of other people. Young people with ASD may have difficulties putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagining what the other person might feel like.
Social situations are not always easy
“Communication with most people sometimes feels like we’re speaking in different languages.” Emmi describes her challenges in social interaction.
Social relationships are often just as meaningful for young people with ASD than for other young people. Through them, they gain experiences of how to control their emotions and respond to other people’s emotions, cooperate and solve problems. Social relationships also improve their self-esteem and strengthen their sense of solidarity with their peers. The quantity, quality and forms of social relations may, however, differ from those of neurotypical young people. It may well be enough for a young person with ASD to meet friends in hobbies, in school or online.
See the Hand of Well-being on this website to find out more about relationships and emotions.
“Social interaction feels overwhelming. After meeting my friends, I may need a couple of days to recover.”
A young person’s own way of thinking and perceiving things develops in youth and any special traits are easier to notice. Challenges in social interaction may heighten the experience of being a social “failure”. Peers seem to develop at a different pace, they may start dating for the first time and are interested in a wider variety of new activities. Young people with ASD may continue to enjoy the hobbies and interests that are familiar to them from their childhood, and the gap between them and their neurotypical peers grows.
Being accepted and supported by other people helps you overcome even the most difficult situations. Peer support may also be helpful for example when you need someone to listen to you and talk to who shares the same life experience as you. Peer mentors of Autism Finland are available in several locations and online, and the chats of Tukinet also provide a platform for sharing your experiences. The contact details of the member associations of Autism Finland and information about peer groups can be found on the website of Autism Finland (in Finnish).
Please remember that all interactions are unique!
- Speak calmly and clearly.
- Avoid slang, sarcasm, figures of speech and irony.
- Do not insist on eye contact.
- Ask clear, precise questions. But do not underestimate the person!
- Give them enough time to answer before asking another question.
- Make sure your message is understood.
- Address one thing at a time.
- Minimize the sensory input by adjusting the lights and sounds, for example.
- Stick to a schedule for meetings to avoid waiting.
- Avoid sudden changes.
- Avoid unnecessary touching. If you do touch the person, ask for their permission first.
Parental and professional support for practising social skills
During life transitions, it is important to encourage young people to engage in hobbies outside the home and support them as they make friends and maintain friendships. The best way to develop social skills is to engage in interaction with others. Observing other people and their behaviour facilitates learning. It is worth keeping in mind that learning social skills requires regular practice. Concrete instructions, repetition, sufficient time for learning and especially situation-based learning are useful tools during practice.
It is important for parents and professionals to support and strengthen the ability of young people to read social situations and draw the right conclusions from the social encounters of people. Young people often also need help with understanding the cause and effect of human behaviour and its consequences. Positive feedback and experiences of success improve the well-being of young people with ASD and make it easier to learn new things. The Autism Good Feeling Questionnaire developed by Dr. Peter Vermeulen (in Finnish) can help think of ways to improve well-being together with the young person.