Autism and Navigating Social Needs and Desires

I recently took my boys to a birthday party at a friend’s house. The party theme was movie night and the kids were given shoe box size plastic containers containing a plate with pizza, a drink bottle, a plastic popcorn box, little containers of candies and crackers and such, and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. They’d originally planned to have the party outside and project a movie onto the side of the house, but rain drove everyone into a basement room that was set up with pillows and cushions and little chairs. Adult-sized chairs lined the back wall and a sheet hung on the wall to serve as the screen for the projector. It was quite well put together and very clever.

Parents got all the kids settled downstairs, and the dad started the movie. After making sure Scott and Jeb had their boxes of food and drink secure in a way that they wouldn’t spill, I went back upstairs with some of the other moms to get myself some food and a drink when, minutes later, 11-year-old Scott came stomping upstairs carrying his little plastic box.

We’d already had an issue with the pizza. The mom had checked with me beforehand about what brand of pizza to get (we go to Bible study together, so she was very careful to make sure that Scott would eat dinner that night), but they’d bought a thin crust instead of a regular crust, and he would NOT eat it (which was a bit frustrating because she’d gone to such careful lengths to make sure Scott would enjoy himself). So, we were already on the edge with his coping skills, because he was hungry and starting a spiral.

It took me several minutes to understand the gist of the problem. As the dad set up the DVD and the projector, he let the previews play on the screen. Scott saw the preview for a Disney movie he’d never seen (Ratatouille, I think) and wanted to watch that instead of Toy Story. Like I said, he was already starting to spiral, so normally he’d grudgingly accept the movie and go on with life, but not this night.

Not wanting to force an issue in a crowded room with a bunch of kids, I hugged him to give him some joint compression (because that releases dopamine and norepinephrine – which help him chill in a spiral) and talked him into making himself a big plate of veggies and ranch dip – then gave him another bag of the (never served in our house but always longed after) Doritos. Then I settled him on the couch and handed him my phone.

Something about his demeanor gave me pause, though. Despite the fact that he was about to sit back with unrestricted YouTube power, something seemed off. I said, “Are you okay with this?”

He shrugged and said, “I mean, I guess.”

Again, that didn’t feel right. So, I said, “Scott, how do you feel about being up here instead of downstairs with the other kids?”

He moved his little plastic box off his lap and set my phone down, then drew his legs up and covered his face with his hands. “I feel so left out!” he wailed.

That really made me stop.

There is an assumption that we’d incorrectly made in that even though Scott doesn’t outwardly exhibit a desire for a social presence, and even though he often removes himself to be alone, that didn’t mean that he NEVER wanted to be socially active. He just didn’t know how to make it happen at this moment because so many things (in his mind, so they’re valid points) had gone “wrong” with the evening.

So, I took him into my lap and squeezed him some more, and said, “Hey, if I go down there with you, will you sit in my lap and watch the movie with me? It’s been so long since I saw Toy Story and I’d love it if we could watch it together.”

He jumped up with much enthusiasm. “Okay!” he said, and I carried his box while we went back downstairs. Thankfully, a big chair against the back wall wasn’t occupied, so I settled into the chair and Scott climbed into my lap. A little while later, a chair next to mine was empty, and Scott, obviously resettled after so much contact with me, moved into that chair.

After the movie, we sang “Happy Birthday,” gathered cupcakes to take home, and left (we were the only non-homeschooled family there, so it was a little late for a Monday night and we left with the party still ongoing.) Scott and Jeb both proclaimed how it had been the best birthday party ever, and talked about it even the next morning.

Social situations are difficult for many autistic kids., and Scott is no exception. Other kids are loud, they understand social cues, and they don’t always want to play by Scott’s rules. So our assumption has always been that he simply did not seek it out and did not want it.

How many times have I unintentionally perpetuated a situation where he ended up feeling “so left out!”?

I worry now, a bit, that since I’ve never forced social situations beyond gentle encouragement, that I might have been keeping Scott from doing something he really wanted to do but didn’t know how to make happen.

I’ve now resolved to ask him, with clearly defined questions, how he feels about interacting or not interacting with peers.

Since isolation is so often the preference over everything else, the questions won’t be “would you rather”, because almost always, he’d “rather” be on his own with a screen. Instead, it will be, “How do you feel about —,” which will give him an opportunity to analyze and try to convey what it is that he’s feeling — either, “I don’t care” or “I feel so left out” – or anything in between.

Because now I know that I need to ask.



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  1. Hallee, your honesty about your journey with your son is so inspiring and informative as my son is a few years younger than Scott. This post is no exception. I have always made the same assumption. Thank you for opening my eyes to this reality. I will be more careful with my wording with Andrew.

    1. This is why I share my journey – ups and downs – so that I can help other mamas not make the same mistakes I make! Thank you, my friend.

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