Tristan was 15 years old; his obsessive interest was insects. Each time he came he would look for insects under logs in the forest.
Rowan was also 15 years old; he was very interested in cartoons.
This day they met in the woods. Rowan started: “I’m autistic”, Tristan responded: “I’m autistic too!” Rowan replied: “You’re accepted in my club!”
It was the beginning of a human relationship between two autistic teenagers.
The next time, Rowan had brought some buckets to give to Tristan to help him collect some insects.
Rowan was engaging the conversation and wanted to talk with Tristan about his favorite cartoon characters. While looking for insects, Tristan would take part in the conversation, imitating the voices of the cartoon characters that Rowan liked and talking about their personalities. Rowan would sometimes get interested in finding out about the insects Tristan was searching for in the forest.
They were interacting together by sharing their interests.
They were also sharing the fact of being autistic; and by interacting together they were becoming aware of their differences, as Tristan said “every people with autism is different”. Tristan could for example “taste” the sound of voices and unlike Tristan, Rowan could understand metaphors: “You’re as strong as an elephant” said Rowan; Tristan replied “I don’t understand metaphor because of my autism”.
Each one has learned the social rules necessary to talk and relate to each other.
They were two friends walking together along the same path, interacting and communicating together, finding out at the same time about themselves.
Human beings need to connect to each other, to create relationships with each other. This gives meaning to life.
In fact, in order to survive, humans began to live in small family groups. As populations began to grow, social norms were created to provide order and to make sense of each other’s action; they are rules of behaviors that are considered acceptable in a group or society: social norms or skills.
Today we all use these social norms or skills to interact with each other and build relationships with each other. The development of these skills in typically developing children starts early in life and happens over a number of years, generally without a lot of direct instruction.
But autistic children usually struggle to learn these social rules. In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosing autism is a deficit in social interaction and communication.
This is mostly because children with autism have a malfunctioning sensory system which gets often overwhelmed by all the bad sensory triggers in their environment (e.g. like artificial lights, noises, textures, smells or large numbers of people...) leading to the over-activation of their amygdala. This triggers the release of high levels of cortisol, a fear hormone that is responsible for our stress response, which shut the brain down and prevents us from interacting with other people and in turn stops us from learning about social interactions in the environment. For autists who live often in an elevated stress stage this becomes problematic and hinders the learning of these important social skills.
Social stimulation are indeed often very overwhelming for people with autism.
They often find it difficult to make eyes contact with other people, or to read people’s facial expressions. They also often struggle with “theory of mind” and find it difficult to understand that someone else’s beliefs, interests and experiences may be different to their own.
These difficulties make it challenging for autistic people to connect with other people in society.
Social interactions become tough for them as they don’t usually find them rewarding. Indeed studies have also shown that impaired social skills in autism may result from reduced feelings of reward in response to social stimuli.
So how do we help children to learn social skills so they can build human relationships in society?
The most important thing is first to reduce the stress felt by autistic children in a social environment in order to decrease the over-activation of their amygdala, and lower the high cortisol levels. Open their brain to interact and connect with their environment, then learn about social skills. [See science of learning]
A way to decrease high cortisol levels that these children experience is to set up an environment that is free from as many bad sensory triggers as possible.
The ideal environment for a child with autism (or for any child) is nature where all the bad sensory triggers are just not present. This helps to reduce stress so the children become more open to interact with other people and learn.
Another way of reducing the stress felt by autistic children is to increase the production of a hormone called oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. This has the opposite effect of cortisol and facilitates stress regulation especially by reducing the activation of the amygdala and thus decreasing the cortisol levels.
Oxytocin is produced by rocking motion, deep pressure, rhythmic music, swinging, laughter…
Research also shown that oxytocin produces a sense of reward in response to social interaction. This might also help autistic people to improve their social skills, as studies also suggest that impaired social skills in autism may result from reduced feelings of reward in response to social stimuli.
After reducing the stress felt by autistic children, it’s all about building trust and a real relationship with the child before we attempt to teach or learn any social rules. This way they can understand the value of human relationships without the barrier of social rules.
Indeed, human beings are born to relate and connect to each other. Each one has his own way of interacting with people, depending on how our brain perceives our environment.
So what if instead of forcing the child to learn social rules by forcing them to interact with people in a certain way in society, we first simply follow the child in his own way of connecting with people.
So begin with observing how the child relates and connects to people and give them the freedom to interact with people in their own way without them having any pressure of fitting into the social norms.
It’s about understanding the meaning of true human relationships before learning and understanding the meaning of social rules.
And then while following the child, start to learn about the social rules and their meaning.
Follow the child and move with him while learning. In fact, moving has various benefits among others it opens the brain to learning, and enhances the production of BDNF, an important growth factor involved in the neuroplasticity necessary to learn. [See science of learning]
Also have animals around: horses, dogs, cats, chickens, bunnies, rats with which the child can interact. Indeed, some studies have shown that any kind of pets strengthen social skills in children with autism.
Create games around social skills using their interests (which increases their intrinsic motivation to learn), show them how to learn theory of mind by modelling it and playing rules based games such as hide and seek, tag…
And then go and explore society with them, the man-made environment, where the social rules and norms apply. Observe people acting, interacting with each other, and explain the social interactions and their meaning in the history of mankind, give the child the freedom to gradually find his way of being in harmony with the society.
Once you understand the meaning of human relationships, you develop a sense of empathy and compassion for others and for yourself.