Teaching Social Skills At Home
Last month, my 14-year-old son went to a meet and greet for one of his favorite tech YouTubers.
When he returned home, he told me all about the other people he met, the jokes that they told, and the afternoon that they shared.
Later that night, my husband said, “You would’ve been so impressed. He held his own. He was confident and chatty. I cannot believe how far he has come in just a few years.”
I felt the tears well up.
Tears of gratitude to be sure, but also tears of relief.
You see a year and a half ago, with much concern and guilt, I made the decision to stop formal ASD social skills training for my son.
I didn’t make this decision lightly. In fact, the very day we heard the diagnosis, we were told he needed to be in social skills training of some kind.
We tried a few options in our area, but they all felt forced and sterile.
It’s odd to expect pubescent 12-year-olds to communicate with each other in a vacuum. We did find a place that matched kids according to their interests – which was better. But rather than spending time allowing them to talk about their interests, they completed a social skills curriculum that made my son want to withdraw and be less social than ever.
As my son has matured, his social differences have become more apparent, especially in certain situations.
Reciprocity in conversation, basic goodbyes, and understanding nonverbal cues are social skills he has struggled with his entire life.
But the prescribed approach did not seem to be making a difference in his day-to-day conversations. So, we decided to take a break from all formal social skills training and see if we could make an impact at home.
(Please know, I am not a doctor or trained therapist. I am just a mom and my only expertise is in my experience with my own children.)
Teaching Social Skills At Home
As I look back on the last 18 months, here are the things that have had the greatest impact on my son’s overall social ability.
Most social skills training is designed for kids that are currently in traditional school programs. For my son, this created a bit of a disconnect. My son has had the same set of friends since he was eight years old. Because we homeschool, there is not a new school year, new friends and new situations creating hurdles to overcome each September.
Honestly, homeschooling has allowed him to continue to develop deeper and more meaningful friendships. Because the children in our circle have generally stayed the same, they have grown up with my son. They know him. They know his strengths and his differences. They accept and respect him.
Recently, in a big step for us, my son started taking a couple of classes a week at a local private school. The classes include daily social situations and events with the other middle and high schoolers. To our relief, he has been able to enjoy the social aspects of attending this school part-time. I believe this is, in part, because of the consistent social interactions he has had as a homeschooler.
It may sound completely unrelated, but animals have been an essential part of my son’s social learning. For whatever reason, animals are easier for my son to “read.” Because of this, we often use pictures like the one below to discuss what may be happening from a social perspective – i.e. “The bird on the right is uncomfortable. Look at his body language.”
It works and we use it to his advantage.
Interest-Led Social Learning
Using my son’s special interests to help him in social settings has, by far, been the most beneficial tool in his social development. When my son was intensely interested in aquariums and fish, we visited our locally owned fish store almost every day. He interacted with the owners and other children with confidence, because they were discussing a topic so important to him.
Lately, we have been at the computer store weekly. The same level of interaction occurs, but he also getting more comfortable asking questions about non-computer related topics (i.e. Will you please show me where the aisle with duct tape is?).
It’s not perfect. He is still working on reading nonverbal cues, especially when he is super excited to explain GPU specs and the person’s eyes are glazing over, but we are making progress just the same.
There are so many resources available to help. One of my favorites is Autism Homeschool Mama’s printables.
The most important outcome of all of this is how confident my son now feels in general social situations. When at the store, in a restaurant, or asking for directions, he is easily able to hold a polite conversation. With his friends, he continues to learn how best to communicate, despite his differences.
This confidence is what I think will guide him in future, less known social scenarios.
It’s a joy to see how far he’s come.
This is the final post in our series – DIY Therapies for Children: Can I Do This At Home?
In addition to Social Skills, we have also done various other therapies at home.
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.