How to Help Your Child With ASD Improve Social Skills For A New School Year
The breezes of summer are leaving us and are being replaced by the crisp air of autumn. The trees once green and full of leaves are now bearing bright reds, oranges, and gold. Transition is a wonderful time to reflect on the memories of the past and look forward to the excitement of the future. As we move to yet a new school year, we recognize yet another transition for you and your children. Yesterday, they were in a stroller holding their baby bottle. Today, they are students clad with backpacks almost too large for them barreling onto a big yellow school bus.
Transition is wonderful and difficult. Change brings new opportunities for learning and discovering, but even positive change brings with it challenges, new routines, and at times, confusion.
With our children, this transitional period can be particularly difficult as they navigate a road of friendships, acquaintances, and peer relationships. This is a road that is not straight and predictable. Rather, it is a road that is winding, unpredictable, and filled with potential potholes and twists and turns that are often confusing for our children to learn and navigate.
As we begin yet another school year, here are some pointers to help in understanding socialization in the school forum:
Regression occurs not just in academics but in social skills as well
In a comprehensive analysis published by the RAND Corporation, McCombs and colleagues note that elementary students’ performance falls by about a month during the summer (2011). It can be assumed, like any other skill, our children’s social skills also decline when they are not utilized to their fullest abilities. Hence, it is important that social skills are practiced throughout the summer.
Encourage summer social skills that are interactive
Often we try to get our children to engage in interactive activities with the end goal of promoting socialization. Remember, however, that some activities promote more socialization than For instance, in a team sport, there may be less socialization because the goal is to generally to play the game. In karate, for instance, the individual goal may be to learn a technique. While sports can be an important element, seek activities as well that promote dialogue between your child and peers.
Be a “fly on the wall”
Children tend to interact differently when they are among adults than when among their peers. Additionally, children tend to have subtle rules and rituals that we may not be aware of without just simply observing. Watch your child during the summer in activities with their peers. This will allow you to act in a mentoring capacity to guide them along. It is helpful to see from a neutral viewpoint what they are doing right and, just as importantly, what they can do to enrich their socialization.
Help them to understand their feelings
Socialization and subsequent social skills is a frustrating process. The rules change constantly and what seems correct in one situation can often not be applied to another. This often comes across in one single emotion: anger. Help your child to recognize that anger is just the “tip of the iceberg.” When you see frustration and your child says he/she is angry; help the child recognize the partnering emotion of frustration. When a friend does not want to play, and the child is enraged, he/she is also subsequently hurt by being abandoned.
Work towards “making the leap”
When working with children and their families I often ask if a child has friends. I get two answers: The parent says “no” and the child says “yes.” The reason for this contradictory answer? The child counts the peers at school generally, and the parents never see this carried over to the home environment. This means we must help our children with skills such as how to ask for another child’s number and develop scripted answers on how to call another child’s home and make plans. This can include what to say when the other child is not there, how to leave a message, and how to end the call in a polite fashion.
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Help a child see “the big picture”
When any of us have anxiety (and socialization is probably the largest form of anxiety for any of us) we tend to forget simple solutions for addressing the issue in front of us. Children who have challenges with social skills are no different. Like many of us, what they tend to do is to do what does not work repeatedly but do it harder. As Mark Twain once said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” Consequently, if our children have limited social abilities, rather than seek out other peers, they try with the same rejecting peers over and over. When that does not work, they try to “hammer themselves” into the peer group harder with the same “tunnel vision “response. We must encourage children to seek other peers who are more receptive versus waste their time on those who simply are not interested.
“Have a hook”
People often joke that if a man is looking to meet a woman, he should just bring along a baby or a pet to generate a buzz of interest around him to garner extra attention. Now, how does this connect with what we are talking about? Children also can be drawn into socialization by some novel items or ability. If your child learns a skill, such as a magic trick, is a good artist, has a pet, something that “draws” in his/her peers, it is this idiosyncratic ability or skills that can get those peers gathered around him.
Teach “I” Messages
In counseling, a simple skill that is taught to adults and children alike is that of “I” Messages. Quite simply, it allows a child to state how they feel: “I feel,” why they feel that way,
“Because___” and finally what they need to solve the problem, “So I need you to ______.” This teaches the vital social skills of assertiveness. Even if the child does not know what he/she needs or how to feel they can, at least, begin to develop some framework from which to build upon. McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., Schwartz, H. L., Bodilly, S. J., McInnis, B., Lichter, D. S., & Cross, A. B. (2011). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost students’ learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
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This article was featured in Issue 78 – Back to School Success