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Working With A Socially Inept Young Adult

Question:

My husband and I work with youth in our very small town. My husband teaches and coaches while I help with youth group and the teen center.

There is one young man that baffles us. He is 19 or nearly 20. He attends youth functions that we have privately told him that he is not allowed to attend due to being too old – the age range for youth group is 9th-12th grade. He makes girls uncomfortable as he sits close to them or will lean forward in his chair so that his head is just behind another girl’s shoulder then sighs with disgust when she moves. He moves physically into the middle of other people’s conversations and brings up very random topics.

He lives at home and takes online classes I believe. He was home-schooled – but I am not using that to knock home-schooling, just for information about his background. He doesn’t seem to have close friends. He has a younger brother and a younger sister. Unfortunately they are nearly as inept, but quieter about it so at this moment it doesn’t drive kids away from youth group. His dad is goofy, but pleasant to talk to. His mom shows similar social problems – interrupting and not taking social cues. He plays the piano, but even with a talent like that, he seems to have a good sense of when it is appropriate to play. For instance, after church, he goes up to the piano to play. If it was quieter, it may be nice background music, but he plays loudly despite our requests to use the damper pedal. I can be trying to show someone a function on the computer that is next to the piano and trying to be heard over his playing and he looks right at me and does not realize that maybe he should tone it down.

Another church incident as an example of the interesting behavior he portrays: On occasions a few of us make a small band to lead Sunday music. We invite him to play along. This past Sunday we didn’t – 1) It was a last minute decision and we forgot to tell him, and 2) we were mainly doing slower songs that didn’t necessary benefit from conga drums that he also plays. Finding out that the little band was playing, he set is drums up without asking us – okay, that’s fine. He comes in during practice before church and asks if he could play. My husband answers, "We are playing hymns today." The guy mumbles something and walks away. During the service, we got done with a the first hymn, and he comes up on the stage to tell my husband, "You said you were playing hymns, but you didn’t say you were playing one." Guess he felt like he could have played along with that hymn – which is fine, but coming up on stage in the middle of church to say that while the pastor is reading announcements? Oh my goodness, I’m frustrated.

When he comes to youth functions, kids leave – especially girls. I am tired of putting work into functions that no one attends because he comes. Thanks for letting me vent – that is nice therapy for me. :) Now, if you have any ideas or books or resources that can point me in a direction of how to manage this kid or change my perception of him so that he doesn’t frustrate me. Telling him directly that his behavior is not appropriate may work at that moment but the next time that situation comes up, he is back to his old behavior. Do we just keep telling him – "Hey, dude, use the damper pedal" or "Hey, we were talk here and you are interrupting." Or are they other ways to reach him?

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Answer:

Psychologists and other mental health doctors can have a tendency to pathologize behaviors that aren’t necessarily representative of disease. I say this to offset what I’ll say next which you should take with a grain of salt. What comes to my mind when I read your description of this young man is Asperger’s Disorder, a developmental condition which is characterized by profound social ineptness. There may be a real condition underlying this kid’s odd behavior, which, as you wisely have thought through, might help you to think differently and more compassionately about his behavior. Then again, it might just be a serious case of nerdiness that causes him to do what he does. I’ll describe Asperger’s Disorder a little bit and you can decide how well that fits.

Asperger’s Disorder is a developmental disorder that manifests primarily in the form of pronounced social deficits. It is thought of as falling within the Autistic spectrum of developmental disorders. Think of it as a very light form of Autism which is a more profound and severe developmental disorder characterized by severe social and language deficits and (in some cases) communication and intellectual deficits sufficient to cause the individual to meet criteria for Mental Retardation. In Asperger’s Disorder, there aren’t language problems but there are social problems.

According to the latest edition of the DSM (the manual containing the definitions of mental disorders) at least two of the following social problems must be present to make a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder:

  • impairments in the use of normal social body language (odd expressions, failure to make eye contact, etc.)

  • a failure to form developmentally appropriate peer relationships
  • failure to spontaneously desire to share (non-sexual) intimate moments with others
  • failure to display social or emotional reciprocity

There are also behavioral problems associated with the condition. At least one of the following must be present:

  • an abnormally intense or overly focused preoccupation with some activity

  • a need to engage in stereotyped rituals that aren’t strictly necessary for getting things done
  • repetitive movements
  • a preoccupation with parts of objects (rather than on the whole)

These odd behaviors and social deficits must lead to impairment in the individual’s social or occupational (or academic, or church-oriented) functioning.

Other than perhaps speaking in an odd or stilted cadence, there is no real language or expressive problem, and all normal language developmental milestones get met more or less on schedule in such children. The same must be true for the development of important self-help skills, children’s interest in the world, and other (non-social) adaptive behaviors they display.

It would seem from your report that the social deficit part of this definition set is met in your young man, but I’m not clear on whether the behavioral aspect is there.

If this kid qualifies for an Asperger’s Disorder diagnosis would your feeling of frustration lessen a bit? Often when there is a diagnosis, people are more forgiving of people’s problem behaviors as they attribute those behaviors to the "disease process" rather than to simple cluelessness. I want to suggest here that whatever the case may be with regard to a diagnosis being appropriate for this young man, there is likely something more happening here than simple cluelessness, and on that basis, I encourage you to err on the forgiving side of things if you can. No one chooses to be so clueless and inept.

One of the substantial downsides of homeschooling is the lack of socialization that can result. This is of particular concern when a child may have a condition like Asperger’s. For one thing, it is far more likely that an Asperger’s-like condition would be identified early on in a public school setting, and rather less likely that this same identification could occur at home. The other important angle here is social feedback. Children with social deficits of the magnitude you describe, whether due to a developmental disorder or not, require feedback about how they are coming across to others if they are to learn how to correct their social behavior. Most children have an innate, instinctual ability to intuit how they are coming across to others and to self-correct their behavior to make it conform to social expectations. Your young man seems to lack this ability to easily notice feedback and self-correct. While he may have missed out on some amount of taunting and ostracism on account of being sheltered in the home school environment, he has also missed out on the opportunity for a wide variety of people helping him to know where the social boundaries are and how to respect them. This process can still occur, but at age 19 or 20, it will be harder.

You ask whether there is anything you can do. I would read up on Asperger’s Disorder and Autism, for one thing, on the theory that even if these conditions do not apply to this particular young man, at least it will be useful to rule them out. You may wish to read up on ways that Asperger’s conditions are treated, in particular, although some of the methods used to help young children will not be available or appropriate for a 20 year old. In essence, what you have been doing by giving this young man corrective social feedback is what needs to happen. He may not understand what he is doing wrong, and he may not show the emotional response to your feedback that will help him to learn, but with repetition of feedback showing him where the boundaries are that he cannot himself perceive, he will have his best chance to learn how to respect them.

On a final note, you express frustration with the way that your carefully planned social events self-destruct when this young man shows up. This "crashing" behavior that he engages in is of a piece with the other socially clueless behaviors he manifests. He simply doesn’t understand where the boundaries are to social events and relationships. It is entirely appropriate for you to teach him those boundaries by not allowing him to crash your events (after having warned him that it will be inappropriate to do so), or by instructing him (kindly but firmly) to sit down and be quiet during during a church service. This correction is not cruel behavior, although it may seem that way superficially. You can be kind in providing it, but you must also necessarily be firm about it. He has to learn where the social boundaries are, and he cannot do this for himself. Few people in his life are going to be as supportive and caring and willing to help him learn this basic information as yourself and the other pillars of your community and church group.

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