Thursday, February 24, 2011
Autism and Peer Relationships
More of the draft text I am composing. As always, comments are appreciated.
Colleagues and Peers
For some people with autism spectrum disorders, colleagues and peers are the closest non-familial relationships in their lives. Autistic individuals with occupational or academic success often find their success because of an ability to hyper-focus on a topic or skill of special interest. This focus is one aspect of “autistic perseveration,” a near-obsessive interest in an object, concept, topic, or activity.
I’ve read various definitions of “colleague” and “peer,” so it might be useful to clarify the terms as I am using them in this text. I use “colleague” as a broad synonym for coworker. When I use “peer” I am referring to someone of similar age and background as the subject. As a university instructor, all the employees of the university were my colleagues and deserving of respect. However, my “peers” at the university were the doctoral students and the junior members of the faculty within my academic department. Peers are a smaller group, generally, than our colleagues.
Colleagues and peers are closer to us naturally: they share at least some traits and interests with us either as students or coworkers. From our earliest schooling in kindergarten, if not earlier, we are among people close to our ages with whom we share daily experiences. Common experiences continue well into adulthood, at which point we work on projects with coworkers instead of sharing homework assignments.
Our early peers occupy an odd space between compulsory and intentional relationships. We encounter these peers in preschool, Sunday school, kindergarten, or similar settings. In a classroom, you cannot really avoid peers, but there’s little question that smaller subgroups of elective bonds form — even if these are not close friendships outside school. Peers, especially those living in our neighborhoods, are likely to become our first friends outside family members.
We have peers throughout school and into adulthood. Peers are the people like us, people we resemble in numerous ways. Peers are identified by these criteria:
• You are within either the same calendar age or developmental generation
• You share physical proximity, such as a school or neighborhood
• You literally speak the “same language,” including any regional accent, idioms, et cetera
• You come from similar socio-economic backgrounds
Teens and adults with ASDs might not recognize peers easily. I have witnessed two extremes among people with autism: assuming peers are strangers and assuming peers are friends. Both have risks as we get older. Perceiving everyone as a stranger limits the ability to form close relationships, which affects our self-image and our careers. Conversely, perceiving everyone as a trustworthy friend leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. Peers occupy a temporary space; most slowly fade to acquaintances or even strangers. Only a handful of peers become true friends.
Parents and teachers know that students with autism are noticeably different, and their peers do treat them differently. Often, parents, teachers, and support professionals tell me of their anxiety and emotional pain felt when observing an autistic child among peers. I know it doesn’t always help, but I do tell these men and women that autistic individuals do not perceive peer interactions in the same way as their caregivers. Among their peers, autistic people can seem:
• Detached and at times indifferent to their peers
• Rigid in their preferences, often demanding the preference be met
• Uncooperative, especially when asked to work with groups
• Aggressive due to vocal or physical mannerisms and nonverbal communication
How a child, teen, or adult is perceived by others is often beyond the autistic individual’s ability to analyze or to adjust his or her behaviors. Peers are unlikely to understand this, as well, leading to conflicts and further isolation. It often falls to parents and educators to attempt to bridge the differences between people with ASDs and their peers.
I have been told repeatedly that I seem detached from my peers. A professor once accused me of not caring about my classmates. I responded, honestly, “I don’t know them that well and don’t care to.” I needed to focus on my studies to succeed in school. This meant that when I was working on a project that I could not be spending energy analyzing the people around me. It takes far more effort to analyze the people around me than to study — and it takes an exhausting amount of effort to read a page of text.
It isn’t that I don’t care, but that I risk caring so much about any one thing or person that I cannot function at all. If I start thinking about the “suffering children” somewhere else, I end up frozen with depression. Imagine pondering all the emotions of my immediate peers? I’d never be able to do anything at all except feel emotions. Keeping peers distant isn’t a sign of lacking compassion. Ask my wife, a sad movie leaves me emotionally drained for hours or even days after I see it. Peers would be that same experience multiplied hundreds of times.
Emotions might be the greatest challenge in dealing with peers, but as with strangers there are also sensory issues. These sensory issues eventually lead to a reasonable fear of being overstimulated. I know that by early grade school I avoided some people and situations I somehow knew would cause sensory pain. I was prone to headaches by elementary school and diagnosed with migraines by college. I might not have understood the pain as a child, but I knew it was real.
I believe the fear of being overwhelmed with intellectual, emotional, and sensory changes explains why autistics seem rigid and demanding to their peers. Rigid routines are a defense mechanism, a way to reduce the risk of unexpected stimuli or situations. Unfortunately for autistic people of all ages, most people are somewhat random and spontaneous. Not only do they not need routines and specific preferences to function, many people seek out novel experiences. The “new” is exciting to many people — but paralyzing for an autistic person.
Peers don’t understand when an autistic teen or adult would rather skip a party or some other fun event to maintain a routine. Childhood peers definitely don’t understand why a child might like eight crayon colors and no others, or why an autistic classmate wants to color nothing but horses day after day. For me, it was lighthouses and the Battlestar Galactica “Viper Mark II” fighter. I’d sketch the same lighthouses again and again, not because I couldn’t try other things but because I wanted to get the lighthouse “right” eventually. I wanted to perfect that one image and was frustrated when I could not achieve near-photographic reproduction as a fourth grader.
This rigidity creates problems for peer relationships. Peers had no trouble moving on while I spent years on the same object or concept. Details matter to me in a way they don’t to most of my peers, even to this day. Why is it that Claude Monet can spend years painting the same subject, water lilies, but no one understands an autistic person wanting to perfect a specific skill or knowledge area?
Another concern I hear from parents and teachers is that a student with autism is uncooperative with classmates. My instance on technical precision can make me seem uncooperative, even as an adult. I know what I’m good at and don’t want to be stuck doing something at which I am mediocre. Also, I have to admit that most of my peers in school (and even work) are not perfectionists. Contrary to what some believe, I have never found that group work produces better results — the group is constrained just as a chain is limited by its single weakest link.
Educational theorists have been advocating group work and collaboration since the late 1960s. However, we still find resistance to groups particularly emphatic among high-achievers and students with cognitive disabilities. Classroom and workplace teams are highly fluid social groups, which tax the emotional energies of some individuals. Autism’s inherent social impairments increases the stress of group projects, not because of the tasks required but because of the social demands.
Peers might not understand why an individual with autism wants to work alone. This can be perceived by peers as “snobbery” or “conceit” and cause further isolation of the person with an ASD. Parents and teachers have told me this begins a cycle: isolation creating further isolation. Some autistics children seem to notice and question this isolation, while others don’t seem that concerned at all by the increasing distance between them and their peers.
Is it Aggression?
If there’s one thing that consistently contributes to poor relationships with peers, it is a perception that autistic traits are indicative of aggression. Strangers and acquaintances might never witness these traits; peers are likely to observe autistics traits without understanding them. Too often, I’ve had parents and young people with autism tell me of instances when autism led to disciplinary hearings, academic suspensions, or even legal charges. Some of the traits causing confusion include:
• Physical movements and gestures, such as arm flapping or sudden jerking
• Self-injurious behaviors, from fist pounding to scratching
• Loud and emphatic speaking that sounds “angry” to others
• Poor impulse control, such as speaking out of turn
Peers see us just enough to become increasingly convinced something is “wrong” with an autistic individual. When peers don’t know the autistic person well, they start making assumptions — and a common assumption is that autistics are aggressive or violent. Such a perception causes peers to avoid someone with an ASD, leading to isolation.
Because we encounter more peers in our early years, often at school and within youth-related organizations, it falls to parents, educators, and other support providers to guide our peer relationships. As individuals with ASDs age, they often remain dependent on friends and family members to help negotiate peer relationships. Some suggestions for guiding peer relationships include:
• Explaining to peers, without full disclosure necessarily, that people are different
• Monitoring peers for any bullying or manipulative behaviors
• Establishing clear routines and rules, which apply to all members of a group
• Accepting that an autistic person might need space and time alone
Remember that the development of impulse control is incomplete well into early adulthood. This is one reason teens and young adults take illogical risks and do “dumb” things. Young peers simply lack the maturity to self-regulate, just as ASDs impair executive functions. Therefore, adults have to mediate peer connections in the best of circumstances.
Establishing a safe, nurturing environment for autistic individuals can help create a better space for all people, especially young people. Reminding peers that everyone is different is an ongoing project, one that doesn’t end in adulthood. It is easy to forget the breadth of human personalities.
There are, unfortunately, aggressive and manipulative people. Studies suggest these traits emerge early, often before age six. The traits associated with autism leave many people with ASDs vulnerable to abuse. Any adult supervising a group of peers must carefully monitor and address bullying in all its forms. Too often we dismiss verbal abuse or manipulation as less damaging than physical abuse. Once one peer demonstrates how easily controlled a person with ASDs might be, experience has taught me that other peers start to follow the bully’s lead.
Routines and rules help minimize bullying and reduce potential stress for people with ASDs. When the rules are clear and everyone must respect them, a sense of equality of fairness forms among the peer group. Fairness, along with honesty and kindness, are important to many autistic people. Parents and teachers report that some autistic children insist, vehemently, on all group members being treated equally.
Finally, we should not force anyone into group activities. I realize group work is a core belief among educators, but sometimes it is not appropriate. Autistic people often do best alone, no matter what research or idealism might tell us about “most” people. Too many autistic teens and adults have told me they quit a course or group because they couldn’t work alone. I wish teachers could understand the absolute misery I have experienced in groups, which only creates new tensions among peers. Sometimes, being alone is the best thing for a person and the others in a peer group.