Moving Beyond Arbitrary Borders and Artificial Scripts: Real Social Skills Training for All

For every "treatment" or remediation in autism-land, there are both fervent believers and detractors. For every person helped, there's another harmed. Perhaps, just perhaps, in some cases, it's not the therapy itself, but the person conducting the therapy that makes it a problem.

There are bad apples in every field, people who misapply therapies, others who use their position to abuse, and others who are so incompetent as to be dangerous. Nowhere is this more evident and problematic than in the disciplines that are involved in helping people--be it in academia, in psychology or in service-related fields.

A recent post making the rounds of facebook is "How to Be Socially Awkward or What I Learned In Social Skills Class" by extemporarysanity,  a sarcastic and witty romp through all that is wrong with social skills training. There's no doubt that when social skills training is that rigid it can lead to problems, especially when interacting with people who don't know or follow the script.

Restricting social skills training to autistic children and teens is foolish at best. It assumes that the deficiency is the autistic individual's, not the general population's. And this is simply not true. We teach  people how to treat us by our behavior and reactions. We expect, as adults, for teenagers to be churlish and bored with school and with adults, and we expect them to be indifferent to others in need, when the reality is that our youth are often reacting to our expectations. Change what we expect, treat them with respect and as people with equal value, and we get a completely different response from them.

So, just because there are ineptly applied social skills programs out there, does that mean social skills training should be dumped entirely, or  should it be revamped and integrated into all classrooms and all subjects? Is there a call for social skills training to be more widely implemented throughout the entire population? Daniel Goleman has spent the last two decades studying emotional intelligence, the psychological equivalent of real social skills, not scripts for awkward situations. Emotional intelligence is, according to Goleman, on the decline--the ways we used to learn emotional intelligence have gone by the wayside, and we are too often compartmentalized--children don't have the opportunities to engage in free play and the chance to learn to navigate the social waters with each other. Instead, children are overly programmed and moved from activity to activity. Even social opportunities are programmed--playdates where parents dictate the hours, the places, the activities to be engaged in.

It's a different world, no doubt. My brothers and I had long summer days outside where we wandered the neighborhood and mixed with the neighborkids. It wasn't utopia, to be sure--there were disagreements, enemies, and the need to create safe spaces and fall back plans. We had the chance to walk all over, to go into places of business and navigate that territory alone. We were dropped at the mall so we could catch a film, eat something, roam the shops.

The freedom to learn from our encounters, especially when those encounters went badly, allowed us to grow, to problem-solve, to compensate.

Social and emotional learning is not just for autistic and other neurodevelopmentally delayed individuals. It is for everyone, and until schools and parents intentionally focus on teaching real-world skills to all children, we're going to continue to have issues with our kids, all our kids, growing into emotionally and socially mature individuals. All you have to do is look at any news article to find socially and emotionally immature trolls who have nothing better to do than to lash out at those who are different from them. Or, failing that, try driving by a school at pickup or dropoff time to see adults who believe that they don't need to wait their turn--that they are too important to not go to the head of the line.

Goleman notes that social and emotional learning curriculums for all students from kindergarten through high school are gaining ground: "In Illinois, for instance, specific learning standards in SEL abilities have been established for every grade from kindergarten through the last year of high school. To give just one example of a remarkably detailed and comprehensive curriculum, in the early elementary years students should learn to recognize and accurately label their emotions and how they lead them to act. By the late elementary years lessons in empathy should make children able to identify the nonverbal clues to how someone else feels; in junior high they should be able to analyze what creates stress for them or what motivates their best performance. And in high school the SEL skills include listening and talking in ways that resolve conflicts instead of escalating them and negotiating for win-win solutions."

Sure, there will be people groaning that this isn't something the school should have to teach everyone, but those of us who have children on the spectrum know that our children's worlds would be much easier to navigate if everyone learned the social rules--that we need to show respect for others, listen quietly, respond appropriately, and most importantly, to be kind--to give others a break.

All too often, as a teacher, I can look out at my sea of students and see their frustration with students who are different, or who choose to ask questions or comment in class--they sigh, they roll their eyes, they mutter under their breath. Acceptance of all is not something we are good at, and the greater the difference, the less the acceptance. Teachers can absolutely mitigate that, at least in the classroom, by having a zero tolerance policy for that kind of behavior and by modeling patience, acceptance, and inclusion.

There is a growing awareness among educators that social skills training is for everyone. NASP Resources' website notes, "Good social skills are critical to successful functioning in life. These skills enable us to know what to say, how to make good choices, and how to behave in diverse situations. The extent to which children and adolescents possess good social skills can influence their academic performance, behavior, social and family relationships, and involvement in extracurricular activities. Social skills are also linked to the quality of the school environment and school safety."

Instead of assuming that these social skills are naturally learned, NASP argues that "it is important that educators and parents reinforce this casual learning with direct and indirect instruction. We must also recognize when and where children pick up behaviors that might be detrimental to their development or safety. In the past, schools have relied exclusively on families to teach children important interpersonal and conflict resolution skills. However, increased negative societal influences and demands on family life make it imperative that schools partner with parents to facilitate this social learning process" (emphasis mine).

If we want our children's social skills to generalize to the wider population, we have to as a society make sure we're on the same page, that we value the same skills, that we provide a welcoming environment where quirks and eccentricities are not made fun of, but embraced. Diversity exists, so instead of isolating others who are different from us, instead of laughing at them or deriding them, let's model what we want for our children and autistic friends: acceptance and appreciation and do so by demonstrating patience, both in the classroom and in the real world.


farmwifetwo said...

I firmly believe the lack of social skills in society comes from many places.

1. Internet
2. Texting
3. refusal to let children out to play both at recess and at home and then blame parents when the children are fat
4. Dumbing down of school learning
5. Refusal to allow different POV's - this one is the most frightening with the "mobs" online.
6. Current war against those that have by those that don't and expect those that have worked for it, to give what they have earned to them. Not a portion through taxes and charities - which they usually give large amounts - but most of it.
7. Poor worth ethic - school's pushing children through and see #6. Worried about protecting their self-esteem so we've destroyed their pride and self-respect instead.
8. Demand for instant gratification without working for it.

Most of these overlap but you get the jist.

Human's keep forgetting that social skills and civility are simply surface traits. We use them and pat ourselves on the back about how we aren't like the "animals". Yet, when things fall apart.... wars, famines, internet.... we can revert to our basic personality traits which are not "civilized" at all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this - in so many ways, I get really frustrated seeing how my autistic child complains having to go to "social skills class" and then using the "skills" he learned to try and and have a conversation - watching to see if their "friend" is busy, making eye contact, gently touching someone's arm or shoulder to get their attention, being sure to say their name, etc. and then to see that child outright ignore my son or even tell him to "go away". "I tried getting their attention, but they told me to go away." This is often and thinking of how hard my child and our family works in helping him socialize (when he honestly does want to talk to someone) and seeing other parents and their children oblivious to social manners - it gets me so angry. Less and less are people polite now a days anyways. Social skills don't work if the rest of the world isn't on the same program.