Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Autism Awareness #12 - Social Skills & Schools

If I had a nickel for everytime the issue of social skills comes up in conversations about my son and his autism, I could retire and raise margaritas in La Jolla. He doesn't ever bring it up of course.  Why would he?  After all, he has a social and communication disorder.  But it's always on our minds as parents.  My wife and I focus on it a lot.

Social skills are critical to success in life be it academic or elsewhere.  I would contend that social skills are AS IMPORTANT as other academic areas such as math, reading, writing and science. 

Even if you're not fully able to adopt particular social skills, it's important to know how to navigate through them.  Much of the discussion around social skills in the autism community today focus on knowing about the social requirements of society - also referred to as the "Hidden Curriculum" - so they can tweak their behavior, actions, comments, etc.  Social skills are as important for school aged children as they are for adults in the work place and beyond. 

Schools struggle with social skills.  Initially, it was more of an issue of scope and focus.  It has now become a struggle of what, how, and when.  For the first few years at my son's school when we broached the idea of the school addressing social skills we were given the answer that they must focus on academics.  I don't know about you but without good social skills, I never would have passed that horrible calculus class my freshman year in college.  Thank goodness for study groups...  Thankfully our child's school has changed their response the last 2 years or so.  Unfortunately, we are still faced with 2 significant challenges; 1) clarity as to what social skills are and having a curriculum in hand to take action, and 2) available time in the packed school day schedule.

Last year we finally received a willing response from our child's school to include a social goal in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  That's when the 2 challenges above became abundantly clear.  The social skills goal was something to the effect of "the student will learn social skills".  In the IEP meeting I recall saying "We can't just have a goal that says he'll learn social skills.  If that's the case, why don't we also have a goal that says he'll learn math skills?"   I cringe when I hear those types of goals.  They are meaningless. There are building blocks within social skills and we need the school to incorporate those.  For example, how to greeting someone, personal space, waiting 10 seconds when attempting to enter an ongoing conversation, not talking for too long about a subject of interest, checking in with the other person.  We did succeed in tightening and refining his IEP goal to include some of these building blocks.  Operationalizing it is another matter entirely.

School systems still don't have a strong answer as to how/when to actually TEACH these skills during the school day.  They've made headway on practicing them but not teaching them in advance.  There seems to be an inclination to highlight the skill within another time period (e.g., we'll weave it into his time with the speech and language specialist) and then have him practice them in the hallway, lunch room, or on the playground.  If we taught math skills like that we would simply be hoping that students would eventually figure out calculus and differential equations! 

We have seen some emphasis of social skill development at school for our son and I'm thrilled about it.  One such example is teacher facilitated play on the playground 2 times/week.  For this, our son's special needs teacher helps him choose a game from a short, preapproved list (e.g., 4 square, tag, etc.) and then recruits students.  The teacher then facilitates getting the game going and keeping it on task for 10-15 minutes of the recess.  This is wonderful and helps set the stage for social interaction.  What it doesn't really do is teach him how to socialize within the context of the game.  That is the secret sauce.  If you don't have the skill to connect with someone - picture a high 5 between 2 kids after a good play - then how can you expect them to utilize that skill in a highly fluid, extremely verbal, fast moving game.  It's a difficult balance.

Awareness and adoption within schools of the need for social skill teaching and practice is a huge step forward.  I'm thankful for the team that works with my child and the openness they have for trying new things.  I also appreciate that they're trying to put 10 pounds of stuff into a 5 pound bag.  But, as I mentioned at the beginning, social skills are AS IMPORTANT as learning key academics.  Without these skills, he will struggle in every day situations throughout his lifetime. 

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