Autism: What does teaching social skills mean?
There was an internet article that recently made it to my Facebook page. A Dad had a reality check when he saw his autistic son’s schoolwork. The question was “Who are your friends?” Son answered “No one.”
I’m not sure if Dad was shocked. . .saddened. . .or maybe perplexed by this announcement. I wonder why he didn’t already know. Perhaps Moms are more tuned in to the social details in their children’s lives. I can’t project into someone else’s family. But here’s what I know.
“Social” is complex
The first book I wrote addresses some specific communication needs for students with ASD (Visual Strategies for Improving Communication). My second book focuses on behavior (Solving Behavior Problems in Autism). I have always thought that I needed to complete this series with a third book that would explore the social needs of the autism population. That would sort of “round out” three key areas of need for these individuals.
So far, it’s not done
I’ve researched the research. More importantly, I’ve done my own research asking lots of questions to get perspectives from SLPs, teachers and parents of children through adults on the spectrum. And lots of individuals who are on the spectrum.
What I realize is that the social dimension is a really tough topic to address for these students. There are a gazillion reasons why. Here are just a few.
- Math is very consistent and predictable. Two plus two is always four. The sum is the same in a workbook or on a flash card. Those numbers add up the same in the grocery store or when playing a board game. Speaking a different language doesn’t change the answer.
- “Social” is not like that. “Social” changes all the time. Social rules are different at home than they are at school. In fact, they aren’t even the same all the time at home or school. Going out into the community complicates “social” even more.
- People use the term “teaching social skills.” That implies that there are a fixed set of “socials” that you teach and when they are mastered, you’re done. Kind of like learning your “times tables.” Once you learn the combinations up to 12 X 12 you know them and then you use them to accomplish the rest of your math learning.
- There are very few “socials” that we teach students that never change. I’m recalling a teacher I worked with who was following a popular social skill curriculum for her classroom teaching.
One key lesson in the program was “Greeting people with a handshake.” The students were taught to go up to someone and introduce themselves by saying, “Hello, my name is ____. What’s your name?” Then they would reach out to shake hands with the person.
At the next IEP meeting, one of the Moms relayed how her son got off the school bus, walked up to her and said, “Hello, my name is Tony. What’s your name?” and then shook her hand. That leads to one more problem.
- Students on the autism spectrum may not generalize very well. Just because they learn a skill in one setting, it doesn’t mean that they can figure out how to use it in another situation. In fact, they may not know exactly when or when not to use what they have been taught.
So what do students need to learn?
I conducted a survey asking several thousand SLPs, educators and parents an important question. Here’s the question. “What are the social skills that your students on the autism spectrum absolutely must have to be successful in your environment?”
You wouldn’t believe how many thousands of skills were listed in answer to the survey. That’s overwhelming! Would you like to fit all of those thousands of skills into a curriculum?
Back to the beginning
Now back to the boy who said he has no friends. Here is a question that might not be very easy to answer. What is the relationship between the “socials” that we are teaching and the bond of a friendship? I have no doubt that there are a lot of attitudes and opinions about this.
Let’s look at it differently
I think we would benefit from taking a fresh look at the whole aspect of social learning for students with ASD. Teaching “social” is different from teaching math or science. In fact, there is some interesting research that suggests that teaching in typical social skills groups is not very effective.
What do we need to think about?
Does teaching social skill lessons create friendships? I’m guessing some people would say yes and others no. How would you answer these questions?
- How much REAL friendship opportunity occurs in school?
- Can or should school provide all social learning opportunities for a student?
- What happens outside of school? How does the student’s family socialize? What social situations do they arrange for their child?
- What is friendship based on? Skills learned in social group? Common interests? What else?
Lots to ponder
Let me know what makes sense to you about this complex topic.
Please comment below.
P.S. My “Social Book” is not done yet, but it will be some day. In the meantime, I write and teach a lot about topics related to the social needs of students on the spectrum. In fact, this post will be the first in a series of several to explore a tough topic. Please be sure to let me know what you think or what questions you have.