There’s an emphasis on teaching social skills to those with Asperger’s or NLD. There are different ways of looking at why those who are neurodivergent could benefit from learning these skills: one can see it as “fixing” someone who is not good enough at a “normal” process, or one can see it as providing useful skills and understanding to someone whose way of thinking and expressing himself is different.
The idea of fixing someone suggests that they are broken or deficient, which isn’t a useful approach. To quote something often said, neurodivergents aren’t broken neurotypicals.
No parent wants a child to be hurt and children don’t want to be hurt either. Being different and standing out often leads to being teased, getting in trouble, being excluded or being rejected, all of which leaves children feeling like failures. The long term impact of bullying and rejection on self-esteem and on a person’s idea of the relationship between himself and the world can be devastating. People hope to save neurodivergent children this pain by teaching them social skills, but the danger is that if one frames teaching skills in the wrong way, it’s sending these children the same message: you are inadequate.
Some people view neurodivergent children as having a deficit, and view learning social skills as like wearing eyeglasses if you’re nearsighted. The difference is that in this case eyesight isn’t one’s “self.” The idea that the child will be better if he is more like “normal” suggests that “normal” is better than the child’s authentic self. It’s not surprising if this is damaging to the child’s sense of self: “authentic me” isn’t OK.
If the child felt compelled to use neurotypical social skills all the time, this would be compensatory and definitely ‘not me” – masking, hiding one’s true nature. This lays the groundwork for common underlying thoughts of many who have depression: “I’m not good enough as I am” or “No one would love the real me.”
There’s a different attitude towards teaching social skills – that the child is OK, and that learning certain skills has benefits that can be used when needed. These skills will help navigate situations so that getting into trouble happens less or having certain desired outcomes is more likely. Operational social skills are behaviors like introducing oneself, making eye contact, and following conversation. Understanding pragmatic language (nonverbal language) helps pick up social cues to what’s going on. It’s important to help a child think about the impact and challenge of doing these skills – making eye contact might be difficult – and whether it’s worth doing in a certain situation. It’s important to understand that this is a cognitive process that takes considerable effort.
Often well meaning parents and school staff don’t think about the issue of the authenticity of the child. Imagine being at a cocktail party. Is it necessary to pretend to be interested in everyone, or is it better to seek out those who are genuinely interesting?
Understanding social rules is important. A child might learn that following a particular classroom rule, even if it’s illogical, makes sense since getting in trouble isn’t worth it. A child might do better with peers if she doesn’t share negative observations about them. That doesn’t say the observations are right or wrong, but it’s important to know the outcome of a behavior – saying something negative (unless it’s necessary) is likely to provoke a fight.
Another form of social skills is social understanding. Often children who miss social cues misperceive what’s happening, and tend to interpret events negatively. Seeing two other children talking, a child might assume they’re talking about her. Sometimes that’s right; sometimes it’s not. Understanding social situations can be incredibly important – knowing who one’s real friends are and and who to trust, for example.
It’s important to teach others to accept neurodiversity. A child who doesn’t automatically smile isn’t necessarily sad or unfriendly and doesn’t need to be told to change his or her face. It might make sense for someone really concerned to ask “Are you OK?” until he “gets“ how the child responds. A child who takes time to put together a response probably has something worthwhile to say. A child with sensory issues needs an accommodation, and the accommodation can be made part of the norm. The noise of a lunchroom might be overwhelming, so there might be an alternative quiet place for the neurodivergent child and other children to sit and have lunch.
Learning social skills has an important place in helping children ultimately navigate life after high school and in the job world, where living in group situations or being on a team necessitate collaboration. This doesn’t mean that being authentic and self advocacy for understanding aren’t also necessary goals.
Actually, education professionals are realizing that social emotional learning needs to be required curriculum for all students, with the goal of creating a more self-aware, caring and responsible community. Students actually do better academically when these skills are better developed.
Acceptance of neurodiversity is one of the ways our communities can be stronger. People interact differently socially and still have a lot to say, valuable insight and much to contribute. If the milieu can be safe and accepting of the neurodivergent, neurodivergent children and adults can use social understanding to communicate their ideas successfully and productively. The neurotypical community can learn about and accept the authenticity of the neurodivergent. This is when two-way social skills will be successful.