Who will be the most successful in school and life: students with high academic achievement— or students with good social skills? Ever since Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence hit the popular press, we have increasingly come to realize the critical importance in our society of good social skills. If we are parents of children with Asperger Syndrome (AS), we know that the acquisition of social skills does not come easy—that it takes instruction and practice. We quickly learn that our children have a social skills deficit and need social skills training—but what exactly does this mean? What is taught in a social skills groups anyway? And should children learn social skills during the school day or outside of school? What qualifications should group leaders have? How do you decide which class will be right for your child?
Finding a Group
Since AS is becoming better known and understood, many schools are already providing some form of social skills training for their students with AS and closely related conditions— or even for socially challenged children who may not currently have a formal AS diagnosis. A student may work one-on-one with an adult professional, or be part of a “lunch bunch” or other small group. These groups may be led by a school speech therapist, psychologist, social worker, special education teacher, or guidance counselor, who may or may not have received specialized training in Asperger Syndrome and related Autism Spectrum Disorders. Groups may follow a curriculum with specific goals and lessons, or simply provide casual opportunities for students to socialize under adult supervision. Although the emphasis in this article is on community social skills groups, AANE strongly supports educational teams (parents plus educators) using every opportunity to teach children age-appropriate social skills at school, to train teachers and aides to provide coaching children apply those skills in real life situations throughout the school day, and to increase children’s social opportunities. For example, schools can provide an aide or other appropriate support so that a student can participate comfortably in an extracurricular activity.
However, social skills are complex, and take time to master. Children and teens also need to be able to generalize their new skills—that is, to apply the skills in real life situations, not just in the speech therapy room. Given the demands of a typical school schedule, many professionals recommend that students also participate in after-school or weekend community social skills groups, to supplement the work being done in school. These groups provide opportunities for additional practice, and increase the chance of true mastery and generalization of skills.
Since this is such a new field, there are not many places where social skills are being taught outside of school. AANE maintains a list of community social skills groups on our website, under the “Articles and Resources” tab. If you don’t find a group on the list in your area, you could start by asking your community mental health facility about social skills groups. Other resources are area human services agencies as well as non-profits such as Easter Seals. Joining a parent support group—including both the online and face-to-face groups AANE offers—is another good way to locate a group, and to find out what other parents in your community do to help their children learn about and practice social skills.
In selecting a group, keep in mind that there needs to be time both for the formal teaching of skills, and for the informal practice of those newly acquired skills, and that this all needs to be done in an accepting environment. Our students need to feel safe to make mistakes, and to feel that they are accepted for who they are.
Some professionals advocate including typically developing peers (neurotypical or “NT” students—those who do not have AS) along with the socially challenged students with AS. However, many experts in the field—including AANE board member Elsa Abele—caution that students with AS benefit most from being in a group with children of similar cognitive and social abilities. Socially challenged students need to learn and practice specific social skills at much more length than neurotypical children; this repetition can be boring for the NTs, who don’t need this practice. Although one might think that NTs would be good role models for students with AS, children with AS do not learn and master social skills effectively just by imitating role models. Instead, they need explicit instruction in the building blocks of social interaction to learn the skills that come naturally to other, NT children.
Find out from the instructor how the social skills groups are formed. It is important for the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the group for the instructor to have individual intake interviews for each potential group member before the group composition is decided and the group begins to meet. The interview gives the teacher and the student a chance to meet and get to know each other before the first group meeting. One thing we know about our socially challenged children is that they don’t like surprises, or do well with transitions. The interviews help to make things a little clearer for the students; they know who the teacher is and where the group meetings will be held. The interview also gives the instructor an opportunity to put together a group of students who have similar interests and abilities. This is a very important ingredient for ensuring the success of the group. If the children don’t connect in some way then they will not want to come to group; if they do connect, they will be more motivated.
Many adults with AS, in addition to professionals working in the field, recommend that a curriculum be used for teaching skills that do not come naturally to the AS population. A successful program utilizes a step-by-step approach that includes explicitly defining and clearly describing particular skills, modeling, coaching, repetition, reinforcement, and many opportunities for practice. Inquire about the curriculum as part of your research into choosing a group for your child. There are some good curricula available, including works by Michelle Garcia Winner (www.socialthinking.com), Jed Baker, the Skillstreaming series, and many books from AAPC. A good curriculum will provide a sequence of activities specifically designed to teach students all the steps of “the hierarchy of conversation,” as Elsa Abele calls it, or “social thinking” (as Michelle Garcia Winner calls it), and to practice each skill.
Of course, the instructor must also have a clear understanding of the group participants in order to convey the curriculum effectively. Certainly ask the instructor about his or her training and experience. Some instructors may have taken Elsa Abele’s two-day intensive training at AANE or elsewhere. Although many group leaders may be speech language pathologists trained in social pragmatics, there is no single credential required in order to lead a successful social skills group. Some people seem naturally suited to working with students with AS. You can also ask for the names of one or more parents whose children have participated in groups with this provider, and who would be willing to serve as references by sharing their experiences and impressions.
Communication with Parents
A program that communicates frequently and directly with families is important. Children are most likely to be successful when families and social skills instructors work closely together and communicate regularly. Ask the instructor, facilitator or group leader how s/he communicates with families and whether s/he lets families know what they can do at home to practice skills and reinforce learning. This chance for home practice helps our students really integrate the new skills into their social repertoires. Find out if the instructor asks families what types of skills they would like their child to work on. It is also important for the group facilitator to know what families are thinking so there is less opportunity for miscommunication. Also ask for the names of other parents whose children have studied with the instructor and ask them about their experiences, including by what means, how often, and how well they feel the instructor communicates with parents.
Generalizing Skills to the Real World
Another feature to look for in a good program is to find out from the instructor if there are opportunities for generalization of skills into real world settings—special meetings that take place in a more natural setting out in your community, rather than in the usual office or classroom setting. (This is also where an after-school program could differ from an in-school one.) Research shows that having plans for maintenance and generalization of newly acquired skills is one of the keys to helping children integrate these skills firmly into their repertoire. So ask if all the lessons are in an office setting, or if there are plans for trips and activities outside of the office. Practicing ordering food from a waitress at a restaurant in the office is very different from actually doing it in a real restaurant! This also gives the group a chance to have some shared experiences. Typically developing children often reflect on their shared experiences, and this develops a closeness that defines friendship. A skilled instructor will help the students in a group start to develop some ability to reflect in this way, and use these experiences as a jumping off point to learn about making and maintaining friendships.
Benefits of a Social Skills Group
In addition to learning skills that can help them throughout life, children participating in good social skills groups benefit immediately from being understood and accepted by a group of peers. Without this kind of experience children with AS, especially as they enter the teen years, can become anxious and depressed due to their social isolation. Belonging to a compatible group is a great solace and good preventive mental health. Some children may develop friendships with the other members of the group that extend beyond the meetings.
Along with social skills, your child may also learn some daily living skills (such as making a snack or taking a bus) that are an important part of growing up, and that many children with AS miss because of their lack of awareness, or because parents may be too exhausted or discouraged to teach those skills.
When your child is learning skills with an instructor who understands the AS population, and has a group of peers with whom to practice, the burden of trying to teach your child everything will be lessened. You can then feel calmer about your child’s development—and having calmer parents is always a good thing! Instead of having to be your child’s social skills teacher and social coach, perhaps you will be able to just be a parent—to relax a little, and to spend more time just enjoying life with your child.
Robin Lurie-Meyerkopf, M.Ed. has worked for over twenty years in education: as a classroom teacher, an environmental educator, a consultant, and as AANE’s Associate Director. In May 2009 she received her M.Ed. from Antioch University’s Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate Program with specialized training in pragmatic group skills.