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Correcting Social Deficits: Tips for Aspergers Adults

One of the most characteristic symptoms of Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism is a deficit in social behavior. Many reports written by researchers have described this problem, and it is thought by many to be the key defining feature of Aspergers. The social problems can be classified into three categories: socially indifferent, socially awkward, and socially avoidant.

1. The socially indifferent Aspie:
  • does not seem to mind being with people – but at the same time – does not mind being by himself
  • does not seek social interaction with others (unless he wants something), nor does he actively avoid social situations

It is thought that this type of social behavior is common in the majority of Aspergers adults. One theory is that they do not obtain 'biochemical' pleasure from being with others. Beta-endorphins (an endogenous opiate-like substance in the brain) are released in the brain during social behavior. There is evidence that the beta-endorphin levels in people with Aspergers are elevated, so they do not need to rely on social interaction for pleasure. Some research on the drug called “Naltrexone” (which blocks the action of beta-endorphins) has shown to increase social behavior.

2. The socially awkward Aspie:
  • desires romantic relationships, but does not have the skills to find and keep a partner
  • does not learn social skills and social taboos by observing others
  • is self-centered
  • lacks common sense when making social decisions
  • lacks reciprocity in interactions, since conversations often revolve around self
  • may try very hard to have friends, but can’t keep them

3. The socially avoidant Aspie:
  • avoids virtually all forms of social interaction

In childhood, the most common response in the socially avoidant individual is having a tantrum or running away when someone tries to interact with him or her. As infants, some are described as arching their back from a parent to avoid contact. For many years, it was thought that this type of reaction to their social environment indicated that the person with Aspergers did not like - or was afraid of - people. Another theory (which is based on interviews with Aspergers adults) suggests that the problem may be due to hypersensitivity to certain sensory stimuli (e.g., some said that a parent's voice hurt their ears, some describe the smell of their parents' perfume or cologne as offensive, some describe pain when being touched or held, etc.).

In addition to the above three types of social deficits, the social cognition of adults with Aspergers may be lacking. Recent research has shown that many Aspies do not realize that other individuals have their own thoughts, plans, and points of view. They also appear to have difficulty understanding other people's beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. As a result, they may not be able to anticipate what others will say or do in various social situations. This has been termed “mind-blindness.”

Treatment—

1. Biomedical: Naltrexone is usually not prescribed to improve social interaction; however, research studies and reports have often indicated improved social skills when given Vitamin B6 and magnesium, and/or dimethylglycine (DMG).

2. Sensory: If the problem appears to be due to hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, sensory-based interventions may be helpful (e.g., auditory integration training, sensory integration, visual training, and Irlen lenses). Another strategy would be to remove these sensory intrusions from the person's environment.

3. Social-Skills Training: A major goal of social skills training is teaching Aspergers adults about the verbal and nonverbal behaviors involved in social interactions. There are many Aspies who have never been taught such interpersonal skills (e.g., making "small talk" in social settings, the importance of good eye contact during a conversation, etc.). In addition, many of these individuals have not learned to "read" the many subtle cues contained in social interactions (e.g., how to tell when someone wants to change the topic of conversation or shift to another activity). Social skills training helps a person with Aspergers to learn to interpret these and other social signals, so that he or she can determine how to act appropriately in the company of other people in a variety of different situations.

Social skills training makes the assumption that when individuals improve their social skills or change selected behaviors, they will raise their self-esteem and increase the likelihood that others will respond favorably to them. Aspies learn to change their social behavior patterns by practicing selected behaviors in individual or group therapy sessions. Another goal of social skills training is improving the person’s ability to function in everyday social situations. Social skills training can help the person to work on specific issues (e.g., improving one's telephone manners) that may interfere with his or her job or daily life. 

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