Kids on the Spectrum Do It Their Way
Five young teenage boys meet weekly in a social skills therapy group. The group is discussing “bullying.”
Matthew: “I get called nerd and sometimes geek.”
Kyle: “I’d use the roundhouse kick first…” (gets up to demonstrate the Tae Kwon Do kick, barely missing Nick’s head)
Group Leader (GL) : “Kyle, please sit down. Tell us your idea in words. If you show us your kick, you could hurt one of the group members. What do the rest of you say and do when a classmate teases you?”
Kyle: (after taking his seat) “followed by a back kick/side kick combination.”
John: (with a monotone voice) “Jedis don’t believe in aggressive behavior. It’s not in the code.”
Brian: (directing his words to the group leader) “The Jedi order does not like to rush into combat. The Jedi’s prefer to wait until called upon for duty.”
Matthew: “I informed Ben that there is no definition for the word “geek” in the dictionary.”
John: “I take a breath and count to five.”
Nick: “I am of superior intelligence but I am socially deficient. Some day the boys in my class are going to be working for me. I look forward to that day. In the meantime, I prefer to be by myself, reading.”
GL: “John and Brian follow the Jedi’s code and pause before responding. In the past, when you have been teased, what have you said or done in response to being teased?”
Social skills groups for teens on the spectrum can be challenging but also extremely rewarding on so many different levels. For many children, a social skills group may be the first place they’ve ever felt safe and understood by their peers. These children may be aware of being “different” from their classmates, but helpless to make the changes necessary to lead a satisfying social life. Social skills groups offer group members a place to socialize and also to learn new skills, practice give-and-take, and increase sensitivity to others’ needs.
It is clear from the snippet of group dialogue above that the boys are comfortable with each other and with their group leader. Perhaps for the very first time, group members can express feelings and idiosyncratic ideas freely without judgment from their peers. Because similarity and common interests are essential hallmarks of friendship, these boys are on their way to developing true friendships with one another.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the interpersonal challenges exhibited in the group.
Insensitivity to the social signals and feelings of others
Human beings are constantly communicating with each other through verbal and nonverbal means. When we are hurt, we cry. When we are happy, we smile. When we are annoyed, our facial expression shifts to express our irritation. Social success requires a continuous scanning of our environment for clues that guide our social actions. Children on the spectrum have tremendous difficulty tuning into their social surroundings and then responding appropriately. When Matthew reveals that he is called a “nerd” and a “geek,” the group members struggle to imagine how Matthew feels and then respond empathetically to him. Instead of focusing on the feelings that teasing might engender in Matthew, they focus on the action instead.
Lack of awareness of personal body space
When Kyle gets up to show the group his kick, he is unaware of the impact this action will have on his fellow group member. The lethal combination of impulsivity and lack of awareness of other’s personal body space may result in others viewing Kyle as deliberately rude, irresponsible, and even aggressive. When the group leader offers a directive and a clear explanation to Kyle regarding his behavior, he responds willingly and takes his seat. It is important to understand that Kyle does not purposely intend to hurt anyone. He simply needed to understand the impact he has on others and a more appropriate manner to express himself.
By virtue of being unable to see the world from another’s perspective, a child on the spectrum is self-centered. We show that we are focused outside of ourselves by listening to others, waiting patiently while others finish speaking, and offering words of support when needed. However, it is important to distinguish between selfishness and self-centeredness. Self-centeredness reflects a self-sufficiency, a lack of need for outside influence. Selfishness on the other hand, indicates an intentional focus on the self at the expense of others. It is clear that these group members are trying to relate to each other. They just don’t know yet quite how.
Bookish, overly formal speech
Frequently delivered in a wooden, even robotic manner, the stodgy speech of the child on the spectrum is tolerated, even appreciated by some adults. Children, on the other hand, are not so enamored of this behavior. Peers may react to the academic vocabulary and rigid demeanor as intentional snobbishness. They don’t understand that the emotional realm of feelings with its associated range of facial expressions and varied vocal tones and cadences is uncharted territory for these children. When Nick speaks of his “social deficiency” and “superior intelligence,” it is not his intention to brag or act like a know-it-all in front of his fellow group members. On the contrary, he is just telling it like he sees it or has learned it without anticipating reactions from others.
Difficulty with the give-and-take in conversation
Although the boys in the group are relating to the topic of bullying in their own individual way, the give-and-take in conversation is not there. Conversation is like a game of catch. The speaker throws the ball to a listener. The listener catches the ball by using active listening words. The listener then throws the ball back by asking a question that expresses interest, or by making a statement that shows understanding. In order to have a satisfying game of catch, the ball needs to go back and forth between listeners and speakers several times. In a group setting where many voices are interacting, the child on the spectrum will have trouble processing the information and responding as spoken words and corresponding thoughts collide.
What can you do, as the parent of a child on the spectrum?
Despite the disruptions these children have in their social learning, social skills training is effective in helping them to improve their relationships with peers. These children can gradually learn codes of conduct. These are some ways parents can help:
Familiarize yourself with the social games and activities being played by children of a similar age as your child.
Your child may not understand or care about the rules and goals of typical childhood games. Take time to practice popular games. For instance, if playing kickball is a common playground or neighborhood activity, take time to play actual games of kickball with your child. You may need several attempts and lots of practice before they becomes comfortable with the game. Make sure you also review the basic rules of the game. It may seem obvious to you that you run the bases after you kick the ball, but your child may need to be taught the concept.
Encourage taking the other child’s perspective.
Kids on the spectrum do not hurt others’ feelings intentionally. You may need to help your child understand the impact they have on others. Prompt and educate when necessary to highlight the consequences of social actions or inactions.
Teach your child to respond empathetically to others.
Even if your child does not understand the nuances expressed by others, it is still important that he responds as if he understands. In this vein, teach your child to use words like “Oh” (said in a disappointed tone) to express empathy. Help him work on a facial expression and bodily stance that reflects kindness. You may want to practice this in front of a mirror with your child.
Remember that helping your child develop social skills is a long and arduous task. Don’t be discouraged! The more you can incorporate social skills practice into your child’s daily life, the more proficient your child will be at using these skills.
Click here for more information on our teen boys group
Cathi Cohen, LCSW
In Step Director