Sunday, February 6, 2011
More Book: Four Essential Social Skills
Yes, it is more book content. I won't be pasting the entire book into the blog while I work on it, but I am posting sections that might be useful. I'm also hoping, as any author does, that the previews lead to people downloading the completed eBook once it is ready.
For intentional relationships, experts suggest there are “essential” social skills. I’m not a counselor or psychologist, but I agree based on experience. Different experts have offered longer works on relationship skills, but I could never memorize 50 skills or even a dozen. Working with autism support groups, I have refined my list of essential skills to four:
• Listening: the essential social skill for relationships is active listening to others
• Expressing Needs: people, including friends and family, cannot meet needs without knowing them
• Respecting Others: social rituals indicating respect are important; social rituals include being polite to others even when it is difficult
• Avoiding Others: knowing when to excuse yourself from a social situation before a problem helps maintain relationships
Parents and educators have indicated to me that these four are useful to young children, teens, and adults with ASDs. Though not every autistic individual can develop intentional connections beyond his or her family and care providers, there is certainly no harm in stressing these four essential skills on a daily basis. As one parent told me, it helped the rest of the family and improved sibling relationships with the autistic child.
Basic listening skills are a good start for any person. Listening is not easy, yet it is an essential social skill. Parents and teachers should monitor the listening of children diagnosed with autism. Experts suggest that young children normally turn to see someone speaking. Autistic individuals do not always turn and look towards a speaker, but they might lean or adjust themselves to hear better. They might also cover their ears. If it doesn’t appear that an autistic child is aware of sounds, including speech, I suggest a basic hearing test.
I’ve noticed that I do not always orient myself towards a speaker, but I might tilt my head slightly while continuing other tasks. This is not meant to be rude. Some people with autism have to avoid looking directly at someone to concentrate on the words being spoken. I’ve talked to students who report being distracted by mouths moving and facial expressions. They must look away to listen to the words carefully. For some of us with ASDs, basic listening skills can be developed towards active listening. I discuss active listening in the next section.
Expressing needs clearly can be as challenging as listening. Typically, humans develop gestures and non-verbal signals to express needs long before we speak words. As language emerges, we tend to use one or two words accompanied by gestures and signals. Most of us have seen toddlers pointing to a cup saying, “Drink!” or the all-purpose, “Me!” to express a desire.
Effective self-expression does not mean making demands or seeking attention. Self-expression in the context of meaningful relationships and social skills is the ability to alert another person to important needs or reasonable desires. A persistent myth is that autistics are self-absorbed, self-interested egoists. That is false, but poor self-expression can reinforce that misperception.
One of the expressed goals of therapeutic and educational strategies derived from applied behavior analysis is the development of meaningful self-expression of needs. Setting aside debates about ABA, the goal is a recognition that expressing needs is an important social skill. I certainly agree that self-expression leads to better health care, education, and interpersonal relationships.
Helping an autistic person with self-expression requires patience. Some therapists suggest waiting to acknowledge a statement until it is clear and concise. I believe it is okay to accept incremental improvements in self-expression. When practiced in conjunction with listening, self-expression takes time and effort for all humans.
Building relationships requires learning the social skills associated with respect. In all cultures, respecting others is conveyed by social rituals and deferential politeness. The rituals vary. Thankfully, the rituals in the United States and Canada are minimal — unlike Asian rituals of respect, for example. However, even our minimal rituals can be difficult for autistic individuals.
Respecting others takes many forms beyond rituals, of course, but the rituals are perceived as initial indicators that you honor others. Some autistic individuals never master the basic rituals, and those of us who do manage the basics still stumble with rituals. Consider two of the most basic rituals in our society: waiting for elders and shaking hands.
Even though I understand we should respect our elders, it is a concept that might be beyond some autistic children. They might never understand that others should be allowed to go through doors first, get the seats on the bus, or in other ways receive deferential treatment. For parents and caregivers, I suggest developing a way to indicate an autistic child should wait to act until another clear signal is given. You might try practicing things like going through doorways politely.
The handshake, so common in our culture, is a serious discomfort for me and many other autistics. I hate touching strangers and even most friends and family when I am unprepared for contact. I will often nod, to indicate a polite greeting. Some people still insist on a handshake. I’ve noticed fewer people insist on handshakes, which is good for me. I’m not sure I can get used to touch, and no amount of repetition makes the internal agony go away.
Respecting doctors, teachers, and other professionals means addressing them with their titles, if an autistic communicates either verbally with assistance. Titles such as “Doctor” or “Professor” are polite and I use them even if a person states they do not mind being addressed informally. I’ve been told it makes some students feel awkward, but I could never address a professor by his or her first name in a classroom. Adhering to that ritual is safer than ignoring it only sometimes, because I need set rules that do not change.
The autistic students I’ve met tell me that making rituals exactly that — ritual — really helps them function, especially as they enter the workplace. Addressing clients and coworkers formally might be odd or stilted, but it also prevents misunderstandings. Opening doors or waiting to be seated are other examples. Yes, it will seem odd to some young people, but that’s okay. People will remember you when you are extremely polite.
The reality of autism is that there are moments when avoiding others is the best way to avoid complications. Everyone sometimes does better avoiding people, but with ASDs it can be essential. The reason this is one of the four essential social skills for autistic individuals is that people seldom forget a meltdown, self-injurious behavior, or pronounced self-stimulatory actions. Though we might not understand, when an autistic person pulls her hair or another rocks and hums, people don’t see us — they see the behavior.
I’ve had parents tell me, “People need to just tolerate my child’s stimming.” In an ideal world, maybe, but the spiral of stress caused by people worried about a behavior can magnify the behavior further. If someone asks me if I’m okay when I’m tapping my cane or shaking slightly, I end up tapping or shaking more, causing more people to notice… causing more tapping and shaking. The end result is often a migraine headache or complete panic.
The best thing I can do when I’m experiencing too much stress is leave. I scout out “safe” quiet places where I might go when I need to escape. In college, I did this within the first few weeks on any new campus. In the work place, I have asked coworkers where the quiet spots are where one can collect thoughts and relax.
We can complain about being judged by our autistic traits, but that’s going to remain the case for many years to come. Plus, people will and should always notice if they see someone shaking. That shaking could be seizure or something very serious. So, people are going to look at me or any other shaking autistic. That’s a human impulse — and not an evil one. But, since being noticed causes me and many other autistics more stress, it does make sense to realize there are times when being alone is the best option.