Employing Classmates As Mentors Of Autistic Teens

Any ideas for how my autistic teen can be helped by his high school classmates?  

   Teenagers with Autistic Spectrum Disorders benefit greatly when mainstream peers take a sincere interest in developing friendships with them. Peers who take the time to learn how autism places their classmates at social and emotional disadvantages can make the difference between the autistic teen feeling the fullness of belonging or the loneliness of  exclusion . Common conversational rules mystify, changes in routine tax emotions, and overly literal interpretations of the social world place those with autism at risk for taunting and ridicule by unscrupulous classmates.  The involved presence of well-meaning and sensitive peers can serve as a “social shield” to guard against negative outcomes and as a “discerning doorkeeper” to appropriate venues for socialization.

Read on for ways to instruct teens to serve as social mentors to peers struggling with autism:

Mentoring requires awareness of the way autism impairs “social driving” in high school. This directly impacts upon the ability to accurately see, hear and understand social information around them. Autism leads them to ignore socially vital visual and auditory input, such as body posture, facial expression, and tone of voice. Much like driving, this makes it difficult to socially navigate since many signs are ignored or misunderstood. These “social blind spots” typically lead to peer avoidance and/or attention-seeking behaviors, both socially unsuccessful. The mentor is asked to take note of when the autistic teen is contending with blind spots.

In high school, common autistic blind spots include inappropriate information sharing, questions that overstep boundaries, ignoring implied social messages, misreading nonverbal social messages, misrepresentation of interest in friendship making, verbal paralysis in the presence of groups, and preoccupation with particular interests. Mentors collect observations of the autistic teen’s successful or unsuccessful management of blind spots in advance of meetings designed to gradually replace blind spots with successful social navigation.  Documenting details surrounding social encounters help deepen understanding and promote clearer “social vision.”

Weekly social mentoring meetings are founded upon the mutual understanding that both parties share the same purpose: for the autistic teen to socially assimilate in a healthy manner. It’s best for meetings to be facilitated by an interested third party, such as a guidance counselor or involved teacher. During meetings student mentors act much driving instructors after drives, reviewing details of social encounters both were present for, encouraging questions, highlighting successes, and pointing out areas for improvement. The autistic mentee must be prepared to accept feedback without getting defensive or the mentor is likely to suppress valuable observations.

To further the mentee’s understanding and retention, insights and observations gleamed from mentoring meetings should be documented for regular review.  The school faculty member can serve as the scribe.  If possible, a parent of the autistic teen should be present during some meetings to reinforce learning in social contexts outside of school.  As the mentee becomes an improved social driver meetings can be reduced and mentoring approximates friendly conversation.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 or director@parentcoachcards.com