Social Activities and Communities for Individuals with Autism: Meeting a Basic Human Need

Social activities, as engagement with a community to which one belongs, are an essential part of life for most people. Unfortunately, for autistics, there are often barriers that prevent them from participating in such. Before I address these issues, however, I need to emphasize that the commonly held belief that autistics are not interested in social engagement is totally false (as is the equally egregious idea that autistics are not interested in romantic or sexual relationships). Although some autistics do prefer to be by themselves and avoid social interactions, and others simply need more time alone than is usual, the fact is that most autistics, like everyone else, have a strong desire for some social life and community involvement. Sadly, because of deficits in social skills and socialization, they often have more difficulty attaining it.

Karl Wittig, P.E.

Karl Wittig, P.E.

In contrast with the typical population, which is largely capable of finding communities and social outlets through their own initiative, autistics often face significant challenges in doing so. Consequently, they may require assistance, and even active interventions, in order to succeed here. This can continue throughout the lifespan. As is often the case for autistics, they are ill-served by the notion that, because they have no serious intellectual disability, and often have unusual talents or “splinter” skills that are seen as remarkable, they should be able to accomplish this entirely on their own; once again, the belief that such an individual will eventually “pick up” these skills needs to be reconsidered. Consequently, it is essential that communities having autistic members, not to mention society as a whole, become more aware of the deficits of autism and the challenges faced by autistic individuals, and provide avenues for them to engage in social activities that are appropriate and that they wish to participate in.

There are two basic types of social and community activities: those created specifically for people on the spectrum, and those which serve the general population. Although the former can make inclusion of otherwise marginalized individuals somewhat easier, we must consider that the latter encompass most of the population and as such cannot be ignored. In either case, we must also examine activities appropriate for different stages of life, with the additional consideration that autistics often relate better to people in age groups different from their own.

As with many other aspects of autism, early intervention can yield great benefits later in life. In the case of socialization, deficits in social skills need to be identified and addressed as soon as they can be. These include difficulties in getting along with others, being part of a group, meeting people, and making and keeping friends. Depending on the individual and their circumstances, this can be done in the school environment, through qualified professionals, or by concerned family and community members who understand the issues and are able to help. Helping young autistics to engage in social activities at an earlier age can result in successful later outcomes, and hopefully avoid painful social experiences and the misery that they can bring.

Activities for Individuals on the Spectrum

Activities and communities for those on the autism spectrum, though still few and far between, are nevertheless slowly but surely proliferating. These may be organized by concerned members of the community (parents, family members, or others with an autistic person in their lives), by professionals who work with autistics and understand their deficits and challenges (psychologists, therapists, social workers, teachers, etc.), or by peer-run organizations of autistics (who best understand their own needs) that have emerged and grown in recent years. In any case, the persons in charge of organizing activities must understand the needs, deficits, and challenges of the participants and thereby address any issues that might arise (or preferably prevent them from happening in the first place).

Social activities should be chosen for or by an individual based on what they are interested in and what they are capable of handling (if necessary, with appropriate assistance or interventions). Activities and environments which largely involve things of no interest to an autistic individual and of which they have no knowledge, require abilities that they do not have, or (especially) require too high a level of social functioning, need to be avoided, at least until that situation changes.

Traditionally, what have generally been considered the best activities for people on the autism spectrum are those that relate to specialized interests or talents. These provide a basis for social interaction which in turn helps develop social skills and enables further socialization. Since this is not always possible, due to the broad range of different interests found in the autism community, activities which are at least related or similar should be encouraged as much as possible. Even though their specific interests vary widely, many autistics gravitate towards a smaller number of more restricted classes of interests, which can help to mitigate this problem. Activities which broaden the interests and abilities of an autistic person should, within reason, also be encouraged, as they can also help to improve the chances of successful socialization later in life.

Other activities which are simply enjoyable, or at least made enjoyable, to all or most members of an autistic community can also be of value. These include outings, picnics, short trips, visits to museums and exhibitions, fairs and festivals, films, plays, and many other things. In my involvement with the local autism community in New York, especially as co-facilitator and Advisory Board Chair with Aspies For Social Success (AFSS – www.nyautismcommunity.org), we have organized a variety of such activities (usually on a monthly basis); this is in addition to regular (usually twice monthly) social gatherings at a local diner as well as support meetings (again, usually twice a month).

Engagement Outside the Autism Community

Social activities in wider (i.e., non-autistic) communities should be encouraged as much as possible. Unfortunately, this often necessitates providing supports and interventions for the autistic person, as well as increased awareness and accommodations on the part of these communities. Nevertheless, if the goal is to meet the social needs of those on the spectrum as best as possible, it becomes necessary to do this to as great an extent as is realistic.

Once again, early intervention needs to be provided as soon as is practical in order to avoid difficulties, not to mention painful experiences, further down the road. For many autistics, a good time to do this is early adolescence (if not pre-adolescence) and middle school, which is regarded by most autistics as the most difficult and painful time in their lives – it is at this stage that interpersonal and social skills, which autistics are typically deficient in, become more important for socialization than they had been up to that point. One of the rudest awakenings that I ever experienced was right around this time, when I realized that, not only were my contemporaries not interested in the things that constituted my as-then unidentified autistic perseverations (electricity and electronics, astronomy and space, atomic physics, public transportation, coin and other collecting), but often regarded them with ridicule and disdain. It was not until years later that my range of interests expanded to other things such as history, politics and current affairs, and the social sciences to any extent; this certainly helped me with socialization.

Consequently, activities that involve special interests and talents should receive prime consideration for such individuals, even though they might take place in a non-autistic environment. Nevertheless, some measures need to be taken in such circumstances. First, the persons in charge of organizing these activities need to be made aware that autistics will be participating who face various challenges and have specific deficits, despite their great interest and often considerable talent. Where appropriate, this should also be done for at least some other members of that community. Second, someone who has a connection to the autistic individual should provide whatever supports are necessary. This requires, at the very least, monitoring progress in socialization, providing guidance and counseling where needed, and intervening on their behalf when necessary. This person can be a concerned family member or friend, or a professional who understands the situation and is equipped to deal with any eventualities.

In addition to special interests, unusual talents and abilities can also help with socialization. These can include practical skills (technical, financial, information-based, etc.) that are needed or otherwise valued by the community, as well as artistic talents (especially musical or visual arts) that are enjoyed by other members. Any of these can lead to greater acceptance by and socialization into the community. Still, the considerations stated above once again apply.

A word of caution, however: the fact that an activity involves an intense interest on the part of an autistic individual does not guarantee that they will be socialized into that community. I know this from personal experience of my own youth. In early adolescence, I joined an amateur (“ham”) radio club – an activity which, given my interests and talents, could not possibly have been more appropriate for me. Nevertheless, I soon became marginalized, ostracized, and even reviled in this community for reasons that I never quite understood. This was made doubly painful by my not being able to understand why I was treated in this manner by people with whom I clearly had much in common. For some reason, adult supervision in this activity was lacking, and I did not receive any support in dealing with a situation that I was presumably expected to be able to handle at that point in my life. Clearly, some form of supervision or intervention was indicated here, and would certainly have made a significant difference for me.

Looking to the Future

Those of us on the autism spectrum have a great need for socialization and community, perhaps even more so than the typical population, because we have so often and for so long been deprived of such. We need to ensure that this does not continue to happen, and that as many avenues as possible are made available for autistics to socialize.

Karl may be contacted at kwittig@earthlink.net.

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