But, for parents of children with an invisible disability – whether that is Autism, Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, or even Bipolar Disorder – we think of completely different challenges when we are faced with teaching our children social skills. We think of reciprocal language, sharing control during play, being flexible, and not monopolizing the conversation (that is assuming they even know how to start a conversation in the first place).
Knowing our children have these complex challenges with social skills makes teaching social skills just a part of a much larger problem. And, often our children’s social skill deficits are compounded by other challenges – such as attention issues, sensory issues, or a simple lack of interest. But that doesn’t change the fact that most of our kids want friends.
And they need help from us to make – and keep - friends.
So how do you go about helping boost your child’s social skills? Good question!
In our house we have tried many different ways to teach social skills, from the basic skills (ask someone to play with you), to the more complex (you have to respond to their question and ask another one), and the ones that have no explanation at all (how to fight ‘fair’). And over the years, I have boiled it down to those that work.
Here are 9 tips for boosting your child’s social skills:
1. Formal Classes: One of the most beneficial things I have done is take my oldest son to formal Social Skills classes. Ours were taught by a woman with her masters in social work, but many are led by other professionals (Speech Therapists, Educational Consultants, and counselors). At first I thought this was a waste and assumed I could do it on my own - I am social, I know what to do – but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The curriculum breaks down basic social situations into easy to learn, and easy to practice, lessons. From how to have host behavior and ways to share the control of play, to how to pick and keep friends, these step by step, straightforward lessons have been invaluable to us.
2. Social Skills Groups: Once we had some of the basics down, the next step was practicing them. We attend social skills groups that are facilitated but are not ‘taught’. It is an opportunity for us to be with other children who have social challenges and practice the skills we are learning. Having me, and/or another facilitator available, allows my son to get verbal and nonverbal reminders on how to adjust behavior, or quite simply, when to ask a question.
3. Social Stories: Reading stories that illustrate social situations to a child (in pictures or in words depending on their developmental level) gives a child a better understanding of expected behavior, suggested conversation and social norms in a given situation. This is a good way to give your child some black and white information about this grey subject.
4. Video: One of the best ways I have found to demonstrate or illustrate these social situations, especially those that my son is on his own for (school, birthday parties, play dates) are through video. There are many videos out there, but the ones we have used most regularly are from Model Me Kids (they even have an iPod/iPad app!).
5. Role Playing: When there isn’t a book, or a video handy (and I don’t have the time or energy to make one!) we do simple role playing. This is a good way to address very specific issues that are affecting my children. Like, “I want to play with Johnny at school, but every time I ask him to play tag, he says no.” Role playing through this situation with my children allows us to come up with other things my son could say to Johnny, without the on-the-sport pressure. I also enlist the help of my middle neuro-typical son to participate in this brainstorming session, as his take on the situation is always incredibly helpful.
6. Real Life Practice: There is nothing more valuable than practice. Our kids have to get out there – make mistakes – and find success. Don’t stay inside, don’t avoid every party or the local playground, give it some good thought and choose a social challenge that will give your child the chance to shine – or at least glimmer a little.
7. Play Dates: Play dates are the easiest way to put your child in the position to succeed. You control the time, the location and the play. My best advice for these is to consider them like therapy: Do them every week. Each time you have one set up, plan the activities for the children. Choose activities that your child enjoys and can do with a relative ease. If his strength isn’t taking turns, don’t play board games. If your child can’t share his Legos, don’t get them out. And on the other hand, if you child shines at art, plan a craft or if he has mad-skills on the guitar, have a jam session. This is your chance to manufacture positive interactions with your child’s peers.
8. Phone Conversations: Don’t under value the need for phone conversations. Although arguably texting will likely take over for real phone conversations by the time most of our kids are teenagers, they need to know how to have a conversation on the phone now. And don’t underestimate this: it is hard. No visual clues, no way to read body language; they will have to rely on their ability to hear tone, inflection and respond to questions without a visual. It requires practice. Use play phones, call relatives, and set up phone conversations between play dates with the friends your child creates.
9. Make-Up Rules. This is kind of an awkward one – but for those social skills that don’t really have a rhyme or reason – the ones that defy laws of logic; makes up your own. Here’s an example: Gabriel likes to tell me I look pretty. He knows this is a nice thing to say. But he says it when I am done working out, or when I have jumped out of the shower, towel on my head, no makeup and ran to see why someone was screaming. Not such a good time, and with his interest in eventually having a girlfriend, I think it is important to give him some guidance. So, we have the rule, “If I am not ready to go out for the day, or with your father on a date, then hold off on your compliments until I am.” That’s a grey area, but I gave him a black and white rule to help him avoid social blunders. Same rule is applied to fighting with his brothers. I don’t know why the ‘bro code’ says you cannot hit a guy in the back, but among other places, that is just not acceptable. It is a social norm that I cannot explain. My son requires direction on these things and the best I can give him is narrow guidelines that we can expand as he gets older.