Drawing from my personal experience with my daughter, and with conversations with MANY other parents and therapists, teaching social skills is difficult, but not for the reasons you may think.
I have observed so many of my daughter’s therapy sessions; speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and play therapy. I have watched my daughter being taught specific social skills, broken down step by step. I have watched and learned as she was taught emotional regulation and recognition skills and learned how to identify her own feelings, and the feelings of others. We, as a family, have implemented all of these strategies at home to help her generalize the skills taught in therapy and to help her use these hard earned skills, that are supposed to come so naturally to others, in community social settings.
But, here is the problem.
Children who are mainstreamed, regular classroom children, are rarely taught personal social skills or emotional regulation techniques as a stand-alone subject. In school, as kindergarteners and grade schoolers, we are taught to say please and thank you, we are told to “be nice” or “use nice words” to our peers, we are told to not hit and to “use your words”, but beyond that we are not taught specific social skills. Most children are not directly taught how to identify their emotions and self-regulate. As parents and teachers we tend to tell our younger children what they should be doing/thinking/feeling, but with very little explanation as to why. The direct teaching of social and emotional regulation is missing from many schools and homes. Until children, in general, can navigate their own feelings and their understanding of others, it will be very difficult to be treated as an understanding inclusive person.
This became clear to me in a number of ways. When working with my daughter at home we would often include her siblings in the home therapy “games” we would play. As we worked with all three of them it became evident that her typically developing siblings were also gaining skills when we worked together. Social skills that they needed, but also empathy and understanding or others on a deeper level, their personal perspectives and understanding the perspectives of others. Then the thought hit me, after working in this field for over 20 years, we teach our children with special needs and the campers at Camp Lee Mar how to interact with the “socially typical” world, but we rarely teach the mainstream population how to interact with someone who has different abilities. This is never clearer than when we go out and my children are making friends with and playing with other children they may not know. The comments from other children, and the occasional looks and comments from other parents, about my middle child, emphasize how much as a society social skills and the general understanding of special needs are missing.
The next time you go to a museum/playground/park have a good look around. If you see a parent of a child with special needs there is a good chance that parent is standing alone, or is the only person playing with their child, unless they actually came with a friend. It is not that other children and parents are intentionally excluding a child, but it is easier to ignore a child or adult with special needs if you do not know how to interact with them, than deal with an uncomfortable interaction. Yet every attempted interaction for my child is uncomfortable and has been taught. My child just needs you or your child to smile back and be comfortable enough to say “hello”, or “do you want to play?”
How many times have you heard a child ask an innocent question loudly enough for all around them to hear – “Why does that kid speak funny?” or “Why is that person in a wheelchair?”. A parent’s response is usually a socially panicked one. “Don’t stare!” or “That’s not a nice thing to ask” and then the conversation is quickly moved along. This inadvertently teaches our children to not ask questions, or ignore a person who is different. I can assure you, as a parent of a child with special needs, with many friends who have children with special needs, it is okay to say hello. If your child asks a question that is a little socially awkward, it is okay to counter it with a positive – “I really like their hair, you can wave hello if you want.” I can assure you that the parent you will be interacting with will openly help you interact with their child. You see inclusion is great, but true inclusion means that we need to interact with people of all abilities. True inclusion means, as adults, we help our children see everyone as equal.
Written by Lynsey Trohoske
My name is Lynsey Trohoske, I am the assistant director at Camp Lee Mar. I have three amazing children, my middle child happens to be on the autism spectrum and is a camper at Lee Mar. I joined camp as a counselor in 1998 and loved the campers and their families so much that Camp Lee Mar became my second home!