As Autistic Children Grow, So Does Social Gap
By Jane Gross
Sixth grade was a trying time for Karen Singer’s autistic son, who spent recess wandering the periphery of the playground by himself and sometimes hid in the school bathroom when he needed a safe place to cry. He knew he was doing something wrong as he reached the social crucible of middle school, but he did not know how to fix it. At home he
begged his mother to explain: “Why am I like this? What’s wrong with
Intensive behavioral treatment, popularized over the last 10
years, prepared him academically and helped him get by in regular
classes for years. But social skills are more elusive for autistic
children, and the gap widens with each passing year.
Classmates who once tolerated his peculiarities now shunned him.
Their interests had changed to hanging out and being cool, while he
remained preoccupied with saltwater fish and Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards.
During group projects the boy rigidly held his ground on small matters,
like what color ink to use. When challenged, he blurted out, “You’re
stupid!” or other inappropriate retorts.
“It was shocking how it all of a sudden fell apart,” said Ms.
Singer, who asked that her son, now 13, not be identified by name or
hometown and thus be further stigmatized. “He’d never say, ‘I don’t want
to go to school.’ He’d make it through the day, then come home and melt
Last fall the Singers moved their son to a private school for
children with learning disabilities, persuading him that it was not a
failure but rather an opportunity to feel less anxious. And he does.
The Singers’ anguished choice is an unintended consequence of
improved diagnosis and new behavioral therapy. A generation ago most
autistic children would have been written off as hopeless. Now, as their
numbers are increasing, many learn to speak and to tame their most
difficult behavioral traits.
They are autism’s success stories, moving from one-on-one
instruction to typical public school settings. Last year 27 percent of
this country’s 141,022 autistic children were educated in public school
classrooms with normal children, up from 11 percent of the 22,664
autistic children of a decade ago.
But these high-functioning children face a host of new problems as
they approach adolescence, when social interactions become more
complicated. Parents, educators, researchers and clinicians all say that
the majority of such children become conspicuous in the third grade and
are bullied or ostracized by the time they reach middle school.
Dr. Sandra L. Harris of Rutgers University, a pioneering educator
and researcher in autism, said advances might have fed false hopes. “The
intellectual skills of some of these children may lead people to expect
more than is possible socially,” Dr. Harris said. “They miss so much
nuance that it can’t be fixed in a 100-percent way. That was the hope.
Now we know it’s more elusive than that.”
Christine Grogan, the director of a school for autistic children
in Paramus, N.J., urges educators to be cautious about what they promise
parents, adding, “There are many people in the field giving false hope”
about whether remaining in the mainstream is realistic for more than a
tiny number of children over the long haul.
Virtually nothing in the social arena comes naturally to autistic
children. They must be taught how to have a conversation. To show
empathy by asking questions. To resist arcane topics that do not
interest others. Not to talk too loudly or to stand too close to the
other person. To master the vocabularies of sports and flirting.
Even those with I.Q.’s above average struggle to read body
language or to imagine what other people are thinking. If they learn a
joke, they may tell it a dozen times. They are too literal-minded to
understand white lies and too rule-bound to understand they should not
tattle. They overreact to routine teasing and invite ridicule by
carrying their books over their heads or accepting a dare to kiss a