If you have ever built a tower of blocks, or have seen your child build one, you know that it is imperative to have a strong foundation. Even if you have one block that is off-center it ultimately effects the stability of the tower. Yes, it is possible to compensate for an off-centered block but ultimately your tower will start swaying and your dreams of building the tallest skyscraper in the daycare will come crashing down.
Social skills (pragmatics) function in a very similar way to a block tower. For a lot of people, social skills are learned through observation and practice. We are taught the foundational building blocks of pragmatics through our interactions with peers and from a young age we learn skills such as, eye-contact, sharing, greetings, taking turns and much more. But what happens when one of these skills are not learned or learned later in life? Feelings of embarrassment, loneliness and shame are just some of the negative emotions which impact a child due to a lack of social awareness. Unfortunately, these negative feelings are more common for those on the Autism spectrum.
If you are reading this post, chances are you are already aware about the wide range spectrum of Autism. No matter where your child falls on the spectrum, his/her social skills will ultimately be affected in some way. For those children who are on the higher functioning end, it can be even more frustrating once they become aware of the challenges of connecting with friends and family. These individuals are often seen as equals among their peers, but something seems “off” with their social interactions. As the child gets older you might hear remarks like, “I wish I had more friends”, or “no one wants to talk about Pokémon with me”, or “I get along great with the teachers but my classmates talk about boring stuff.” These remarks are a good indication that your child might be feeling isolated due to a social building block being off-centered.
Some basic building blocks that may be off-centered can include but are not limited to: reading body language, understanding jokes and sarcasm, making inferences about how someone is feeling, how to carry on a conversation, talking about non-preferred topics, and staying on the topic of conversation. It usually takes a speech therapist to fully understand and pinpoint which blocks need to be realigned, but by no means should the therapist or a parent attempt to change who the child is. Temple Grandin is a world-renowned animal scientist who is also on the Autism spectrum. She says, “The focus should be teaching people with autism to adapt to the social world around them, while still retaining the essences of who they are, including their autism.” What she is saying is we do not want to destroy and then rebuild the block tower with brand new blocks, we, as the child’s support team, need to teach the skills necessary for them to reach their fullest potential. This is a life-long process for many children and adults on the spectrum but there are practical ways that you, as the parent, can help.
As the parent, you know your child the best: what they like, what they do not like, what gets them angry or what calms them down. Knowing this information sets you up to give your child opportunities to succeed in the areas that are motivating for them. If you are a parent of a child who is younger (preschool through middle school) give them as many opportunities to discover what they love to do. Most kids on the spectrum will not try a hobby unless they are put into it, and that is where your job comes in. Encourage, do not force, your child to participate in various clubs/interest groups at school which you think might spark some interest. Once you find the hobby that they love to do, encourage them to pursue it even more. If you know they love cars and obsess over the latest model of a Lamborghini, do not put him/her in classes about computer programming. Yes, children need to learn to talk about other topics of lesser interest, but if you want your child to thrive, put them in an environment where they are motivated to learn. As your child begins to grow older and enters uncharted waters of junior high and high school, look for possible job opportunities or volunteer options for them to participate in to build their love and knowledge of their favorite interest. When a child is in a highly preferred field, you will see their confidence and happiness grow. They will love interacting and talking to others who also have a love for that hobby and will find it easier to make friends over a shared interest.
Over time, with the right teaching and opportunities, those blocks that were once off centered, will become realigned to support your child’s social skills and their confidence will soar like the skyscraper you always hoped for.
Jordan Mondak, M.S., CCC-SLP