In the 15 years that I have been a Psychologist and worked with children and families, one of the most common goals set for Autistic and other Neurodivergent children in therapy is to improve social skills.
This push for Neurodivergent children to improve their social skills has come in part from the diagnostic criteria for Autism which describes deficits in social communication and interaction as a defining feature, so there is an automatic assumption that any Autistic child needs to have help with social skills. In addition to this, parents see their children being left out or struggling to interact with peers, or Neurodivergent children themselves feel that making friends is hard for them, and the solution offered is for the child to learn the social skills they seem to be lacking.
While the motivation for this therapy goal is usually well meaning – parents and professionals want children to feel like they belong, make and maintain friendships and connect with people in different settings through conversation – the underlying premise is that Neurodivergent children need to learn how to socialise like Neurotypical children so that they can fit in.
To fulfill this need for improving the ‘impaired’ social skills of Autistic and other Neurodivergent individuals, professionals and academics have created numerous social skills curriculums ultimately designed to teach Neurotypical social skills to Neurodivergent children – I even created one myself a few years ago! But as the wonderful Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” And now I know better.
The problem with many of these curriculums is that they suggest that there is only one ‘right’ way to interact socially with others and that doing it differently is wrong and unacceptable – when in reality there are big differences in the way that people socialise even within the Neurotypical community. Then when Neurodivergent children are taught the ‘right’ way and use these skills in social interactions, they sometimes find that they are rejected because they are using the skills in a rigid way or have difficulty applying them in the moment, or they might experience significant emotional distress over time due to pretending to be someone they are not when they are with others (e.g. masking).
Recent research now shows us that Autistic social skills are just different to the norm, they are not actually impaired. In other words, there appears to be a cultural difference between the way Neurotypical and Neurodivergent individuals communicate and interact socially. When individuals from two different cultures socialise, it can sometimes seem awkward because each individual has different social understanding and expectations. This can also be true of interactions between Autistic and Neurotypical individuals. It is not the Autistic individual’s ‘impairment’ that makes the interaction awkward, it is instead likely to be a mismatch in communication and social interaction styles, and it can be overcome by increased understanding and acceptance of cultural differences from both individuals. It also makes sense then that when two Autistic or Neurodivergent individuals socialise, they are likely to find their interaction more comfortable because their communication and interaction styles are culturally aligned.
Now, it is important to note that this does not mean that Neurotypical and Neurodivergent individuals can’t socialise and be friends – we make friends with individuals from different cultures all the time! But to do this we need to change the narrative around Neurodivergent social skills from being ‘wrong’ to being ‘different’ and be accepting of those differences.
This change in narrative needs to happen in two ways:
1. By helping Neurodivergent individuals see that they don’t have to change who they are to socialise and make friends, and that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the way they communicate.
2. By educating children about the different ways that individuals communicate and socialise and to promote acceptance and understanding of those differences.
How are Social Groups different to Social Skills training?
The Social Groups that we run at my practice aim to provide a safe space for children and adolescents to connect with peers around areas of common interest.
Having themes for the groups such as Minecraft, Lego, Baking and Slime provides the opportunity for the children attending to communicate and connect around a shared interest, reducing some of the anxiety around meeting new people and allowing them to socialise as much or as little as they want to while engaging in activities they enjoy.
Of course, we do discuss with the children what guidelines we might want to have in place to keep everyone safe and happy, with rules such as ‘no put downs’ and ‘hands, feet and objects to yourself’ being common place. But, what we don’t have is expectations around eye contact, sitting still, or staying on topic, or preconceived ideas about what having fun and being connected might look like.
We do not insist that the children complete specific learning tasks, practice specific social skills, or blindly comply with our directions. Instead, we create an environment where children can play, create, connect and communicate in their own ways, with allied health staff present to offer support and guidance when needed. This support might take the form of encouragement to ask a peer for help, brainstorming with a child to problem solve a challenge or conflict, or using distraction and humour and a quiet space to help a child regulate and prevent a meltdown. Staff are not there to ‘instruct’ children on how to socialise, but to provide perspective, an opportunity to collaborate, and their unconditional positive regard.
When we provide children with the space and opportunity to be with likeminded peers doing something they love, an amazing thing happens – they find ways to connect. The more skilled and knowledgeable children help the inexperienced group members. The confident children encourage the anxious ones. They share ideas, facts and tips, or sit quietly and absorb what is happening around them. There are mistakes, misunderstandings and conflict too, but the children figure out their own solutions or staff are there to gently assist.
These are not children who need to learn how to be social, they need the confidence to be themselves and to connect with others who accept them for who they are.
Then what do we do to help children when they say they are lonely and want to make friends?
When Neurodivergent children are aware of their differences and want to connect with their Neurotypical peers, there are many things we can still do to support them to better understand themselves and their peers. But what we don’t do is teach them to act like Neurotypical children.
We can assist Autistic children to understand their own unique communication style, how they express emotions, what causes them stress and what helps them feel better, and what belonging, connection and friendship means to them. Through helping them better understand their thoughts, feelings and experiences, they can begin to advocate for themselves in relationships with peers, and seek out connections that meet their needs.
Then we can support children to understand how Neurotypical people think, feel and communicate, and support them to consider the needs and perspectives of others when they are interacting with peers. This does not mean that a child has to act in a particular way, rather they are helped to understand the perspective of their communication or their social partner so they can make a choice about how they approach the situation.
It is important to note that throughout this process, we must acknowledge the feelings and perspectives of Neurodivergent children as real and valid. For example, we don’t tell children that they shouldn’t be upset about something, or that their reaction was inappropriate for the problem they were facing. We acknowledge their experiences, support them to understand what is happening in their bodies and brains, and problem solve with them to hopefully help them reduce the likelihood of distress in the future. The flip side of this is to acknowledge and accept that for Neurodivergent children, happiness and connection may look different. A Neurodivergent child may be content to be with friends in the classroom but need alone time at recess and lunch to reset, or consider the online friends that they have never physically met as real friends, or feel happy and accepted playing alongside their friend on the Xbox and not talking.
Whether in a social group or attending individual therapy, by supporting Neurodivergent children to meet their own social goals while being true to themselves, we can help them build confidence to seek out people and experiences that will meet their social needs, whatever they may be.
A final note:
Now, you may have noticed that so far all the support mentioned focusses on the Neurodivergent child, and you may be thinking – “Shouldn’t Neurotypical children be learning about Neurodivergence?”
The short answer to this question is a resounding YES! But it is complicated by the fact that Neurotypical children who have good Neurotypical Social skills don’t seek out support to learn about the ways other individuals communicate. I think this is where schools can help, but I will have more to say about that in another blog!