SOCIALIZATION - Why Interaction Is So Difficult For The Autistic Child!

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UPDATE Dec. 2005:  There can be no doubt that in considering issues of socialization or lack thereof in so many children with autism, we must consider the possibility that some of these children may be suffering from FACE BLINDNESS... a disorder known to impact persons on the autism spectrum... and yet, something many therapists and parents are completely unaware of!   I urge you to the the time to read this very critical information on FACE BLINDNESS because it may go a LONG WAY in explaining much of what we see in some of these children!   END OF UPDATE

Another very characteristic trait of the autistic child was his inability to interact socially.  Again, this was easily explained by my theory that the autistic child had an impairment that prevented him from properly processing "partialities" in life.  If the child was unable to process "the whole" until every parts was labeled, then it stood to reason that parts to "socialization" would also have to be properly labeled before the child could "understand" the situation and begin to interact with others.  Add to this the fact that the child had a "label" misunderstood by most, and indeed, socialization became a very difficult matter for the autistic child.  

Persons in society may "mean well", but for the most part, when I informed people that Zachary was autistic, almost 100% of the time, they replied with the typical:   "Ohhhhhh".   It was my belief that most people did not understand autism, yet, the "label of autism" and its association with terms such as “nonsense language” produced a reaction that further complicated matters when it came to socialization.   These children were just "understood to be broken" by society - with no apparent explanation for so much of what we saw in them.   The task of socialization thus became even more complicated in that persons all about the autistic child almost "gave up on him" before even giving him a chance.   Very little was expected of the autistic child when it came to socialization, as evident from the typical “Ohhhhhh” - but if only they knew!

As with everything in the life of the autistic child  the key to success in coping with one's environment and daily life was in labeling the parts to the whole.  For example, until "people" were labeled as "a man, a woman, a child, a mom, a dad, a friend, a stranger, etc", the autistic child would continue to be unable to incorporate these persons into his world.   They were simply "parts" that he did not understand and as such, almost chose not to see.  Again, not "looking at something" was  one of the autistic child's ways of "dealing with what was not understood".  

Of course, the labeling of "parts" to what was involved in socialization usually began with the description of people in a home or school environment via the use of computer programs, television shows, etc.   However  it was critical that once these "parts" were labeled, the child be taken to an environment (such as a park) where the "labels" could be associated with actual people... where each type of person could be physically pointed out to the child to help in his comprehension.  With children, it was probably alright to tell the autistic child that "strange children" were "friends".    However, when it came to adults, it was important to make sure that the concept of "stranger" was explained in a way that associates with it the concept of "danger".   As children learned to associated more items in the physical world with certain concepts, such as the fact that "cars were dangerous", it then  should become much easier to generalize the concept of "danger" to people (i.e., strangers) also... and when the word "danger" was taught, it should always  be accompanied by the words:  "stay away... " and perhaps also "stay with mom",  "go see mom" or "call mom".   This way, you could actually teach the child the appropriate response in the face of potential "danger".

Thus  as with everything else in the life of the autistic child, the key to socialization, surely, must rest in labeling everything.   In view of that, what were the "parts" to socialization that needed to be labeled in order to promote this activity in the autistic child?

For the autistic child  this labeling of "parts" was indeed much more complicated than most would think.   The best way for me to explain this was by using the example of "going on a walk and simply acknowledging persons who go by".  This seemed simple enough... but, when it came to what the autistic child must understand in order to accomplish this simple task, readers will see that this was no small task for the autistic child.

The "task" of socialization - to simply go for a walk and acknowledge persons the child saw on the street - started the very moment the child left the house or his familiar environment.    The autistic child learned to adapt somewhat to his home environment and his yard.   These had within them "things" he had become familiar with... regardless of whether or not he understood them - the "things" in the autistic child's home and its immediate surroundings had somehow, been accepted by the autistic child as "his world to be dealt with".   It was this "world" he worked so hard at understanding... at decoding... and slowly, he began to do so as more and more labels were provided and the "code" to daily life was slowly broken.

In leaving his familiar environment, however, the autistic child introduced new "parts" to "his world", new sensory data that now had to be understood... and if these "parts" were not understood, frustration would undoubtedly set in quickly.  For the autistic child, the simple act of going for a walk and trying to acknowledge even one unfamiliar person while on that walk was a huge, and overwhelming task.

Socialization in and of itself was not the only issue here for the autistic child.  When a normal person thought of socialization, usually, that involved, primarily, interaction with people – with only minimal attention given to the situation or environment itself.   Socialization, for the most part, involved interaction while at a gathering of some type – the emphasis of this “activity” clearly placed on human interaction.   For the autistic child, however, socialization involved much, much more than this. 

For the autistic child, all information being processed by the senses had to also be defined as "parts to the whole".  

 Thus, in going for a simple walk, the autistic child had to understand each of the following "parts" for the "whole" (the world) to make sense, and each characteristic that could be perceived for each and every “part” listed below:

Visual input in the form of:

a street, pavement, gravel, sand, mud, potholes, cracks, green leaves, brown leaves, grass, weeds, flowers of all kinds, trees, various plant types, posts, telephone wires, trash (pollution by the road), rocks, stones, cement, sidewalks, paint markings on streets, sewer drains, sewer covers, mailboxes, the writing on everything along the way, various buildings/structures, animals, bugs, anthills, lawn decorations, nuts, pet feces, pollution in its various forms along the street, cars, trucks, bikes, street lights/signs, persons and everything about those persons in terms of clothing, what they are doing, holding, etc., and anything else that provides "visual input" along with all variations (in terms of shape, size, color, etc.) within all these "things" in and of themselves.

Auditory input in form of sounds from:

Various car, truck or train sounds, wind, rustling of leaves, animal sounds, each different bird sound, crickets, the sound of a fly or bee buzzing by, people and their various voices, screams, laughs, the sound of planes flying overhead, etc.

Olfactory (smell) input from:

smell of plants, people, animals, pollution from vehicles, odors in the air from foods being cooked in homes, etc.

Touch input from:

the sensation of various surfaces on the feet, hands, etc. as one walked or toucheed things along the way.

… as well as issues related to motion  – what I believe to be a huge area in the autistic child’s understanding of the world!

In other words  in order for the autistic child to even begin to attempt to socialize, absolutely all input to his senses needed to be understood in terms of how the "parts" fit into the "whole"... how all these things "fit together" to form "an environment"... an environment that was so different from that the child knew best - his home.   Given this, one could easily understand why, for some children, leaving the home was so very stressful!   This simple activity of leaving the house introduced a whole new set of variables that the child now had to "decode"... and until these variables were "decoded", these new variables would but only add to the child's frustration level.

Again, as overwhelming as this seemed, the key  was again in labeling and providing explanations for everything for the autistic child - to help him decode his world - to help him understand just how all the parts "fit together" to form a whole!  Only once the "physical environment" was understood could the child then focus on specific things within that environment that "were not really 'part' of that environment"... those things could be there but may not be... such as people! 

It was important to note also that the environment itself also changed with time in terms of not only the objects within the environments themselves (i.e., cars there one day but gone the next) but also in terms of seasons, for example.  The autistic child, like all of us, lived in a constantly changing world, and as such, the world was, for him, a constant potential source of frustration.

Once the environment was defined, people themselves had to be then defined in terms of who they were and what they were doing.   When humans and the various activities they engaged in, clothes they wore, way they smelled, way they talked, way they moved were thrown in, the situation  was indeed overwhelming to these children. Throw in there the inability of the child to process "sentence" parts or understand unexpected or unfamiliar noises and you indeed had a very difficult situation for the autistic child to overcome.

In my opinion, another one of the best tools parents had in terms of “teaching socialization” was to make use of  “role playing”.   To actually role-play a “social situation” and provide for the child the appropriate response for certain basic situations should greatly help these children as role-playing provided for the autistic child a “reference point” for future use for similar situations and for autistic children, I truly believed “reference communication” was a key coping mechanism.

In addition, the child had to have an understanding of who "he was"...  to understand his name and how "he too" fit into the whole.   That too, was a critical piece I believed had long been overlooked!  Autistic children were often characterized by what had come to be known as the "deaf child" syndrome.  

The theory of issues with "partialities" and sensory integration failure also explained the "deaf child" syndrome.   The "deaf child" referred to the fact that an autistic child could be called by his name over 50 times and still failed to respond.   It was “as if” he did not hear the parent at all.   Yet, when tested for hearing, everything showed up fine.   This happened with Zachary as well.  Until "Zachary" had been labeled as "Zachary", he had no idea what that "sound" meant no matter how many times he heard it.   Human voices were all about.   Autistic children  had come to accept human voices as "background noise" (although new voices, especially men’s voices, I found bothered Zachary) and so to hear someone calling out:  "Zachary" would be no different than that person calling out "chair".   To the autistic child, I believed, the human voice was something he had accepted as part of everyday life.   However, when Zachary was made to understand that "his name" was Zachary, then, he responded.   Again, it had been simply a matter of labeling HIM as an entity as well – a part to the whole!  

To teach him his name, I simply said:  "What's your name?" and answered: "your name is Zachary".   I did this over and over until he grasped the concept of name.   It did not take long for him to understand... especially since I showed him how "my name was mommy",  how "his sister's name" was Anika, how the "dog's name" was Patches and so on.   He had heard all family members use these names... and so, showing him the names of others around him helped him to grasp the concept that he, too, had a name.   As he finally understood the concept of a name, he would laugh as he said his name was "Zachary Patches" instead of "Zachary Brohart".   He knew this "got a response" from mom and to him that was funny.  But, finally, I knew he understood the concept.  Once he grasped that, I taught him how to write and say his full name.   He finally knew "HIS LABEL" and could easily respond when called.... and finally, "my deaf child" was gone! 

You obviously needed to "get rid of the deaf child" for socialization to occur.  So, getting rid of the "deaf child" by actually making the child understand the concept of "his name" and "who he was"  was the very first step necessary to socialization.  After the child himself was labeled, family members could quickly be labeled.   If the child had no siblings, the concept may be explained by "using children from another family"... or through videos, pictures, etc.  Obviously, siblings helped a great deal in understanding "family labels" in terms of "brother and sister".   "Mommy" and "daddy" were the easiest to teach.  I simply put my hand on my chest and repeated:  "I am mommy" and pointed to my husband and said:  "that's daddy".    When it came to "grandparents", I found the best way to teach that association was to label the grandparent first as "mommy's daddy" or "mommy's mommy"... or for me to actually put my arm around a grandparent and say the words... "daddy's mommy", etc.   Then, the actual label of grandpa or grandma could be added down the road by simply saying "mommy's mommy is Zachary's grandma"...  and that concept became easily accepted.   Again, it was a matter of first "labeling the people and showing the association to the child within the family unit".  The same concept could then be applied to aunts and uncles... by using terms like:  "mommy's sister is Zachary's aunt" or "mommy's brother... is Zachary's uncle". 

I believed it was important to make use of the child's name when labeling others to show the child the relationship between those around him and himself.    This would also help provide that sense of security and greater understanding of the concept of a family at the time "a family" needed to be labeled.

The next thing that needed to be labeled was "the environment"... everything within it in terms of sensory input to sight, sound, smell, touch and taste…and motion.   This involved teaching the child that "this thing we live in is a house", "this place where you play is a park", etc. and defining/labeling absolutely everything within each "environment" as much as possible, down to the most minute detail.   This concept was easy enough for the child to grasp.   Simply taking a child to a park and showing him swings, slides, etc., would quickly solidify the concept of a "park".  However, each part to the swing, the slide, the sandbox, etc., also had to be eventually defined. 

At first, I found “bigger concepts” (i.e., a swing) were ok, but that in most things, I had to go down to the lowest level for Zachary to truly understand something and no longer be “concerned with it”.   As such, I had to further define the “swing” by its posts, its chains, the loops between the chains and the seat, its seat, its motion (i.e., back and forth), etc.  Until the entire “code” to anything was understood, there often seemed to always be that need to continue to break it until it was fully understood.

Next, persons within each environment had to be defined as well as the "what you do" in each environment.   For example, the child should be specifically told that you "play" at the park... and that "playing" involved going down slides, on swings, and talking to other children.    To teach the concept of play, the parent needed to say something like:   "let's go play on the swing" or "let's go play on the slide" or "let's go play with that little boy".   Again, the idea was to teach the concept of “play”.  Of course, the concept of work would be taught much in the same way... for, perhaps, the "school environment"... showing the child that "we work at school" or "we learn things at school"... and I suppose you could throw in "sometimes, we play at school" too.  :o)  For this example, however, I would continue with the concept of play... but, again, the same process  of labeling everything - down to its most minute level - would be true for any environment.  At first, labeling can be more general, however, in order to best help the child decode his world  labeling of persons, places, and things needed to be taken down it its most "basic levels" as quickly as possible – and that involved labeling each aspect of every part to the whole.

Once the concept of "we play at the park" had been solidified, the next step would  be to label the "other parts" in the park... those things that were not part of the park itself... the other children... the "parts" not seen as belonging to the "whole" by the autistic child... and as such, these "parts" to the park were often ignored.

Children in a park must not only be labeled as "friends"... their names should be provided where possible.    I would suggest always using "a friend's name" as opposed to simply saying:  "go play with your friend".    By introducing the children and saying:   "This is Zachary" for example and asking the other child his name, then the autistic child could understand the concept that other people, unfamiliar children had names or labels, too.  This helped solidify the concept that "everything had a label" and hopefully, the child would soon begin to ask for that label.  

Perhaps always asking the child:  "what is this?" and providing the answer for the question for the child was a way of getting him to understand the concept of "asking for a label" when one was needed.  For example, in showing something new to Zachary, I could say:  "Zachary, say: "what is this"?" and ask him to literally ask the question himself.   By then providing the answer, I could show Zachary the concept that he could "ask for help" by using this question to help him "decode his world" when he needed to be provided with a label.   I only recently thought about this idea… and, needless to say, was very excited about the potential within it to help these children figure out how to ask for help in those areas where they needed further help in understanding something.  :o)

Another way of moving toward this was for me to say to Zachary for example:  "Zachary, when you do not know... always say: "what's this?".


To teach the concept of "who not to play with", perhaps all that was needed was to label "the size" of children and emphasize to the autistic child that children that were either "too big or too small" were not those he wanted to play with.  Those children that were "good prospects" should be labeled as "just right" or "perfect" in size and demeanor.    There were definitely children you may not want your child playing with... those who were too aggressive, etc.   The same concept applied in labeling children as "not nice enough ".   I know it may sound terrible to "label" other children as "not nice enough", but, I did not know at this time how else to teach this concept to the child... and yes, I did realize that this was a "negative label" to put on another child... but "not nice enough" was still better than "bad kids" for example.  This was one I admit I still struggled with, perhaps due to the fact that I once saw another child punch my son very hard at the park... a child of about 8 punching a 4-year old who was autistic.  Needless to say, I was more than a little upset.   This particular child had simply wanted to "be mean".   Zachary had done nothing to incite his wrath.    So, yes, some children simply were "not nice" and that was something Zachary needed to understand because there was a very real lesson of life in that too!  :o) 

I just find that for autistic children, labeling someone as "not a friend" may get a little too involved at this point... in terms of defining what "made someone a friend" and what "made someone not a friend"... so, I would opt for the easier label of "not nice enough" at this time in order not to have to explain "why" someone was not a friend.  :o)  Of course, parents could come up with whatever "label" they think would work best for their child.  Labeling a child as "too big" or "too small" worked well... it was really only for the labeling of age appropriate children who were "not nice" that this became an issue.  :o)  I guess you could always teach the concept of "change" to show your child that people "change" later on and that way, you could then "remove the label" from the child who was "not nice enough" later on and have that be more easily accepted by your autistic child in the sense that you would not be introducing confusion by labeling a "once not nice child", now good. 

The next label should be that of "asking permission" to play with another child.  For example, showing the child how to say:  "Can I play with that boy?"  and showing him the difference produced by a "yes" and a "no".   For a yes, the next step involved walking up to the other child and introducing your child and asking the other child his name.   For a no, the next step involved taking your child and walking away... to the car for example, perhaps saying:  "it's time to go home... let's go"... or "it's time to go eat", or "it's time to go have a drink"... just a few words to take the child's mind off his desire to stay behind at the park.  When things were difficult, counting steps to the car was another good coping mechanism.   There were many things parents could think of that worked... it just took a little practice!  :o)

If a child was allowed to go play, then the next label, after introductions, would be to label the activity... i.e., playing in the sand, etc.   Of course, here, the concepts of sharing and "your turn" would be great things to have.  In my opinion, these needed to be taught prior to attempting playing at the park.  You could teach "sharing" by sharing food... remember, however, that you would have to "label" the piles as "mommy's food" and "the child's food" since the whole concept of sharing, by definition, was one of creating "partiality" or “new parts” ... the very issue autistic children had problems with, since sharing involved taking a part from the whole and giving it to someone else - something that would surely create stress for many autistic children.

The concept of "your turn" and "my turn" was an easy enough one to teach - with throwing a ball for example.  Another important concept for socialization was that of "no fighting", or "get along"... again, another fairly easy one to teach if the child had siblings or cousins to work with on this particular "label".

Of course, as children started to interact, at first, there would no doubt be stressful moments for the autistic child.   As a result, "cousins" may be a good place to start since family members would more likely be willing to help and more tolerant of the autistic child.  In my opinion, it was also important to explain to other children that the autistic child's brain worked differently, and that he had a very hard time sharing and playing with other children... not because he did not want to but rather because his brain worked in a way that stopped him from doing certain things.   It was amazing how much that could "motivate" other children to help with the "interaction process".  

Socialization was not something I had the opportunity to work with a great deal since I lived at least 6 hours from my nearest family members, but, I had seen how during visits, Zachary's cousins did really try to play with him even if he showed little interest, simply because I had explained to them that he was a "little different".   I also took Zachary to play on the McDonalds indoor play equipment when I knew there would be a lot of children there (i.e., Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon).   Zachary was now slowly starting to enjoy being around other children.   There was a time when he would simply “plow through” anyone… now, he was actually learning to “take turns” a little more.  Overall, I found other children to show great compassion, caring and willingness to help when it was explained to them that Zachary's brain simply worked a little differently because he had "autism". 

I had yet to label a lot of things for Zachary when it came to socialization because so much of this, I myself, came to understand only a short while ago.  :o)  But, given the importance of labels in everything else in the autistic child, I was pretty sure this approach would help.  I found it very important to constantly reinforce Zachary with a "good job playing with..." when trying to address socialization issues.   It was a small thing, but, to him, it meant a lot.  :o)   Lately, I had found that if Zachary was getting "out of hand" in this area, a simple:  "do you want to go to bed?" helped a  lot, too, since he would do almost anything to "stay up".  :o)

I stumbled upon his absolute hate of "going to bed" the day I gave him his first real "time out" ever in early August of 2002.   I had always tried to be patient with Zachary, as hard as that was and had never really “punished him” in the past.   Zachary had been particularly stressed that did and he did something he only rarely did... he started to bite.  Biting was quite rare for Zachary now, and usually, when it did occur, Zachary bit himself as opposed to others.   There were a few times in the past where he had bitten his sister... but he had never bitten me - until that morning!   By this time, I had figured out that "biting" was a coping mechanism for Zachary - just one of his many ways to deal with stress.   I thus brought him to his room and told him to say on his bed, laying down on his back.   On 3 or 4 occasions he came out of his room.   I had never done this before.  Each time, I brought him back and told him to "stay there because you cannot bite mom".  Zachary, like most children, found that hour to be very long.   I finally went back into his room and before I let him out I asked if he was going to bite again.   When he responded "no", I let him get up.   Now, I just had to "mention" going to bed during the day and Zachary perked up and listened right away.  :o)

There were, of course, many forms of interaction and communication.    Children could simply play together and not speak and be perfectly fine.   To get an autistic child to actually "converse" however, was a lot more involved.   Since the autistic child had issues with perceiving "partialities" and sentences were made of "parts", to have actual social conversation would necessitate that the child be able to converse.   For more on this, I refer all parents to the section on  Teaching Language in the autistic child.  I believed language had to be taught in a building blocks approach - from the ABCs to the understanding of sentence parts.

Once everything was labeled for the autistic child... in terms of socialization and language acquisition, social interaction should  truly blossom.   With the passage of time, more was naturally labeled for autistic children and they came to piece more together – as would any child.   With issues of socialization, autistic children would perhaps do better when with younger children, at least at first, in order to acquire basic skills before being placed with age appropriate peers.   I did believe, however, that, as the “code” to socialization was broken more and more each day, the child should be as quickly as possible reintegrated with age appropriate peers to learn from them also.  The goal was to make the autistic child play with those of his age as opposed to say playing with children who were much younger because, age appropriate socialization was, after all, the real goal.  Thus, anything that parents could do to facilitate the attainment of this goal should be done... and that, primarily, would consist of helping the child "decode" his world and in providing explanations of just “how all this fits together”!

Society had a very long way to go in terms of truly understanding the autistic.   This was also true in situations that involved the apparent need for police officers.  There were countless incidents that involved the autistic and the law, primarily incidents relating to aggression in the autistic adult. 

I certainly respected the need for police officers to do their work and their need to do it safely.  However, I hoped that the information provided within these materials would help police officers in beginning to understand the autistic mind.   Too often  there were news stories of parents trying to protect their autistic children, some of them adults, from persons who simply did not understand these children or adults... and at times, that involved protecting them from police officers too... police officers who had never been trained in techniques that may be most valuable in dealing with the autistic.  

To those in law enforcement, I strongly recommended contacting the US Autism Ambassador, via her website,, in order to obtain a packet of information geared specifically at the issue of "law enforcement and the autistic".  This  was a valuable collation of information that could help all parties, first,  better understand the autistic and second, better learn how to deal with aggression in the autistic in order to diffuse a potentially harmful situation – harmful both to the autistic adult and to the police officer.  The treatment of the autistic by persons in law enforcement was  an area in which a great deal of work was still needed in order to help police officers help themselves in the performing of their duties, and in order to help serve and protect these very misunderstood individuals with autism and their families!  Only with this greater understanding could we  best help to diffuse such situations before they spiraled out of control.

I hoped judges around the nation, also, would read these materials in order to better understand the autistic mind and how, in many cases, what these children and adults do was literally beyond their control as a result of how their brain failed to function properly in very key areas!

As a final word of comfort to parents who were overly worried about issues of socialization in their child's development, let me say that although I realized socialization was important, I did believe society overemphasized the degree to which it was important - somewhat.  Quite frankly, personally,  I was perfectly fine with having a child who was a little less social than others - and perfectly fine with having a child who was not defined or who did not define himself in terms of his peers, because today, unfortunately, peer pressure was something that often led to "more headaches" anyway.   Socialization was important, yes, but it had to be kept in perspective too.   Our children had too much pressure to be the "most popular" child... and that was an additional pressure parents need not put on themselves nor on their children.  :o) 

Finally, in closing, I wanted to also mention that since "socialization" involved a process, the concept of "bubble graphs" as discussed in my section on  "Teaching Language" could also be of use in helping the autistic child understand social situations.   Bubble graphs could be used to "break down the situation" into its component parts and then further analyzed through the use of yet more "bubble graphs" as explained in my section on Language.  Likewise, my section on Teaching A Process could also be of value in teaching socialization skills to the autistic. 

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DISCLAIMER - The statements here mentioned and/or found in my materials have not been evaluated by the FDA or any other government agency or person in the medical field or in behavior therapy and are not meant to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any illness/disorder and/or behavior.  This information is not intended as medical advice or to replace the care of a qualified healthcare physician or behavior therapist.  Always consult your medical doctor or behavior therapist.  All information provided by Jeanne A. Brohart on her website is for INFORMATION PURPOSES and to GENERATE DISCUSSION ONLY and should not be taken as medical advice or any other type of "advice".  Information put forth represents the EXTENSIVE RESEARCH and OPINIONS of a mother based on her experiences and research and provides information as it relates to one family's journey with autism in hopes that other families may benefit from this experience and/or research.  The creator of this site is not responsible for content on other sites.

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