June 11, 2012

Teaching Social Skills: The Missing Link!

Historically, teaching children on the spectrum how to “relate” has focused on teaching them “social skills.” The focus has been on teaching the children appropriate ways to interact. However, since they will always seem a little out-of-sync, even with good training, neurotypical children still will often reject them, either by isolating them or teasin...g them. However, we seem to miss half of the equation. Relating is a two way street. Not only do children on the spectrum have difficulty reading and interacting with typical children, but typical children also struggle with reading and interacting with kids on the spectrum. So, it only makes sense that we need to teach both parties how to feel comfortable “relating” with each other. It simply doesn’t work out well to teach only one side of the relationship. Please read below.

When it comes to social skills, we seem to feel that the one who needs training, or changing, is the child on the spectrum. They have to learn the skills necessary to regulate in neuro-typical interaction. Although we can teach the children many important social skills, they are always going to interact a little differently, because their brains process information differently; they simply think and relate differently. If we try and make the kids into something they are not, they will never feel comfortable with others. You cannot make them something that they are not, nor should we. So, if they are going to be accepted by other children, we have to teach typical children how to relate with kids on the spectrum. Awareness and understanding is the key to help typical kids feel comfortable relating with our children. How can they accept those who they do not understand how to relate with? We need to put as much emphasis on teaching both children to understand and relate with each other.

The best time to start is in the early years. From kindergarten on, we need to (1) provide awareness training to the entire class on what is autism, as well as, (2) awareness training about the individual child. This also can be done by sharing qualities about all the children in the classroom that makes them unique. Focusing on strengths, interests, as well as vulnerabilities. However, it is important that typical children understand why the child may act differently, why it is difficult for them to interact the same way, and how they can effectively interact with the child on the spectrum. Focus very heavily on the child’s strengths, as well as he difficulties. Talk about what can help the child feel “safe and accepted” and how they can help the child “fit in.” Let the children talk about their own anxiety about relating and “fitting in.” Talk about how hard it is for children on the spectrum to read the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others. How to help the child learn to share, take turns, coordinate interaction, etc. Talk to them about saying exactly what you mean and mean what you say. Help them understand that the child will not understand how you feel unless you tell him/her. Talk about being upfront and frank about letting the child know “how to respond”, rather than chastising them for responding differently. Teach how to be “concrete” in describing and explaining things to the child. Teach the children how to read and interpret the unique behaviors they may see from the child. Kids can be very accepting when they (1) understand the child’s actions and intentions, and (2) are guided in how to facilitate interactions with the child. My experience is once the children feel comfort with the child on the spectrum, they often enjoy their strengths and preferences. The teacher should profile the interests of the child, which are often something that interests his peers.

From this understanding, teachers, aids, support staff, etc, should set up and facilitate reciprocal interaction and cooperative play skills between the classmates. If the children feel “safe” with the autistic child, they will feel free to ask questions about behaviors and differences, as they play. They can learn to support the child in cooperative play, and to truly “include” the child. Children will learn to “enjoy” the child on the spectrum, and will often feel pride in helping them. Children can be the best social skills teachers, when taught to facilitate. Adult cannot teach children how to relate with other children. Children need to mentor each other, with the guidance of adults. As each year goes on, the social “relating” skills become stronger and more accepting, as they mature and develop stronger relationships. The only way to truly protect the child from bullying, and to teach true “inclusion” is to build a strong, understanding and accepting social network to support the child from year to year.

Parents need to rally together, provide the awareness training in the classrooms, help facilitate the social understanding for all the children, and guide and direct supportive interaction. You will find it rewarding for both your child, as well as the other children.
- Autism Discussion Page

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