Advice: College Life with Asperger's

My 19-year-old grandson is in college and is having a hard time with social skills and fitting in. He seems to have Asperger's Syndrome. What can I do to help?

Improving social skills can be an important part of any teenager's repertoire. Asperger's Syndrome, like autism, falls on a continuum of symptoms and impairment. Usually, it constitutes an exclusive focus on one area of interest, or one topic, particularly of a non-social nature. The ability to empathize with others and their circumstances could be one area in which social skills get compromised. Unless your grandson has a diagnosis from a professional, don't label him just yet.

Social skills can be improved, and an awareness of social signifiers may make a big difference in you grandson's experience at college. Sometimes called interpersonal training, the approach consists of two dimensions. First, a person is taught to understand communicative cues, and how to send and receive them in a contextually appropriate manner. These cues include smiling, eye contact, nodding to register comprehension, posture, and learning to ask open-ended questions. In addition, learning to disclose opinions, experiences, and feelings in a reciprocal manner with others can immensely improve social skills and social standing.

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The second dimension to learning interpersonal skills is gaining emotional insight: managing anxiety, self-criticism, depression, anger, and avoidance in social circumstances. The first dimension gets most of the attention, but the second dimension is most important. That's because we might learn a "skill," but feel too much anxiety, depression, or critical self-consciousness (what can be called "self-spectating") to implement it.

Remember that the average 19-year-old male may have a lot of social skill deficits that usually get worked on because of his desire to get along with females. Females develop social skills earlier, on average, and males catch up to become viable companions and boyfriend material. However, the emotional glitches I mentioned above, including anxiety, self-criticism, shame, and depression might be the more important issues to tackle.

By developing emotional muscle, which consists of displaying creative optimism, self-acceptance, and an acceptance of others with whom we disagree, your grandson can learn some specific social skills. Saying "hi" and smiling to one new person a day will provide immense feedback, as will the task of deepening relationships with real self-disclosure (including taking some appropriate risks) and confidently being himself.

If your grandson does receive a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, then the treatment could be similar to what I've outlined, only more structured and intense.

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