8 Things I learned from Dr. Fred Volkmar about Social Skills

Ron Sandison with Dr. Fred Volkmar

By Ron Sandison

Last week at the Milestones 15th Annual Autism Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, my wife Kristen and I were on a panel with three other couples, discussing, “Love and Marriage on the Spectrum.” During this event, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Fred Volkmar, Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology, Yale University, and the Editor of The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Dr. Volkmar was the primary author of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV autism and pervasive developmental disorders section.

I gained insight into my autistic brain as I listened to his keynote message and two breakout sessions.

Here are eight insights I gleamed:

1. People with autism process face recognition differently.

Dr. Volkmar’s research team discovered a person with autism engaging in conversation doesn’t use eye-tracking. Instead he or she focuses his or her attention on the speaker’s mouth. Body language from eye contact accounts for 90% of information gained in conversation compared to only 10% by watching the mouth. As a result, 80% of nonverbal social clues are lost between the message and processing it.

Dr. Volkmar shared examining an infant’s eye contact can help lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention. Non-autistic brains light up when they see pictures of faces from an increase of blood flow triggered from the fusiform portion of the brain. The autistic brain, on the other hand, lights up when it see an object related to his or her special interest. Most people with autism can recognize a person’s photo up-side-down the same as right-side-up—while individuals not on the spectrum struggle with this exercise.

II. Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a powerful method of learning social skills with peer interactions.

Dr. Volkmar stated, “PRT treatment of watching videos of eye contact during conversations can help an individual with autism become self-conscious of where his or her eyes are positioned while engaging in social interaction. By focusing on the speaker’s eyes rather than mouth more nonverbal social clues can be decoded.”

III. Learning social skills requires not being afraid to try new things.

A client of Dr. Volkmar who was a college student with Asperger’s confided, “I want to meet girls but I don’t know how.” Dr. Volkmar pointed scissors at his dress shirt and said, “First we will have to cut your top button off because no one but you wears a top button. Next pretend I am a girl and talk to me. I need to see what skills we are dealing with.”

“But Mr. Volkmar, you are an older gentleman with a mustache, not a beautiful woman!” the student exclaimed.

After a few months of mentoring under Dr. Volkmar, this student established a chess club and was dating a girl he met in college.

IV. Teach young people to be accepting of neurodiversity.

Dr. Volkmar told the story of a fifth grader whose special interest was toasters introducing himself to his fellow Club Scouts, saying, “I would love to show you my toaster collection.” The other scouts walked away or cracked jokes about him.

When Dr. Volkmar heard how the children were responding to his client. He spoke to the group of Club Scouts.

“Can you name some physical disabilities?” he asked.

One child replied, “Wheelchairs,” and another said “Glasses.”

“What about hidden disabilities?”

“Like learning disabilities,” a student answered.


Dr. Volkmar explained autism to the scouts and concluded by stating, “Next time my friend with autism tells you about his toaster collection please don’t just walk away or crack jokes. Instead you can say, ‘Can I tell you about my Transformers or rock collection?’ including him in your activities. He has a hidden social disability and would love to be your friend.”

V. Children with autism learn best by structured learning.

Most children with autism love to have a set schedule and routine in the classroom.

“School can cause great anxiety for children with autism—a set schedule can help them feel at ease.”

VI. Adults with Asperger’s need a career that matches their personality and abilities.

One of Dr. Volkmar’s clients with Asperger’s went to law school to be a criminal defense attorney. After this student graduated his first client who was charged with selling legal drugs told him that he had committed the crime.

The attorney responded, “You have to plead guilty because you did the crime. Now you have to do the time.”

This young man quickly discovered that a profession as a criminal defense lawyer did not match his concrete thinking of “right and wrong” nor his personality. Having to defend the bad guys was not what he wanted to do. He is currently employed as a patent lawyer making a six-digit salary and loving the paper work.

VII. Teach young adults on the spectrum boundaries in dating and sex.

Dr. Volkmar gave some examples of people on the spectrum making inappropriate comments to the opposite sex.

A high school student with Asperger’s would tell the cheerleaders, “You have nice breasts!” Dr. Volkmar told him, “Yes that is true cheerleaders do have nice breasts but it’s inappropriate to tell them that.”

Another autistic student would approach pretty girls at his school and say, “I want to have sex with you.”

Dr. Volkmar counseled him using a baseball analogy.

“Dating girls is like baseball you strikeout a lot. Sometimes you get to first – ‘a kiss.’ Once in a while you hit a home run. But you cannot expect to hit a home run every time at bat by asking every beautiful woman to have sex with you.”

Dr. Volkmar suggests peer mentoring to teach young adults relationship skills. He shares, “Don’t just pick any person to mentor. Choose a mentor your child enjoys spending time with.”

A football coach whose son with Asperger’s loved attending the practices, said, “My son refuses to shower. He smells to high heaven.”

“Find a football player to mentor him,” Dr. Volkmar advised.

The coach arranged for a player on the football team to take his son swimming at the high school. As they entered the pool area, his new mentor pointed to the sign, “You must shower before entering the pool.” He quickly showered and jumped into the pool – an example of learning proper hygiene.

VIII. Something can be therapeutic without being therapy.

Dr. Volkmar encourages parents, “Running, sports, games and activities can teach your child social skills taught in therapy – only for free.”

Dr. Fred Volkmar’s humorous stories helped me to see that people on the autism spectrum can accomplish amazing things and open many more possibilities in their life by working on their social skills.

Fred Volkmar

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

One reply on “8 Things I learned from Dr. Fred Volkmar about Social Skills”

Comments are closed.