From an early age, we show kids how to write their names and how to brush their teeth. But can we teach them how to relate to others in a meaningful way?
That's the big question for kids with social challenges like my son. At six, he loves board games, and it's not hard to see why. After all, unlike imaginary play which confuses him, games have a set structure and clearly defined rules. Yet even so, there are limitations. When we get ready to play Pop and Hop, he'll announce that he's the red game piece and "Mommy, you're blue."
Frankly I don't care either way, and though I have nothing personal against the colour, I will insist on being anything other than blue so my son learns that he needs to ask - not presume - what I want.
What looks like a lack of empathy or consideration on his part is simply mind blindness, a difficulty in seeing a perspective other than his own. Or what professionals refer to as "theory of mind."
So back to my original question: can children like mine truly connect with others?
Of course they can. But it doesn't come naturally the way it does for typical kids; they have to work at it and learn it the way you would learn any new skill. Practice, practice, practice.
"We used to think kids with autism were not interested [in social connections]," said Nancy Tarshis, co-creator of The Incredible Flexible You (TIFY), a social thinking curriculum aimed at kids between 4-7. "The truth is, they want to connect; they just don't know how. They don't have the tools."
Tarshis describes social thinking as the thought process we need before we can apply social skills. "Social skills are behaviours, and we choose our behaviours based on the kind of thoughts and feelings we want to give others around us."
Until now, a lot of social-based learning focused on rote dialogue with little regard for context or non verbal cues.
"Canadian communities have been in dire need for effective treatments for autism," said Marika Roman, President of Speech Associates, the Ontario speech-language clinic which recently hosted the first social thinking conference in the country.
"Many existing treatment approaches that centre on amplified reinforcers help children with ASD to be more 'acceptable' to others. However, there is a need for approaches that can help children 'understand' the society and environment around them so that they can integrate autonomously."
With its own vocabulary, each of the 10 TIFY sections features an accompanying storybook, as well as suggested lesson plan for teachers, parents or clinicians working with children on an ongoing basis. There is even an original music CD to reinforce the lessons, enabling kids to generalize and transfer the skills across various situations.
Though the curriculum was designed for kids who need help with social awareness and communication - such as those with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, hyperlexia, and other behavioural problems - the concepts are beneficial to all children.
So instead of telling my son to look at me, he will learn that people give clues about what they're thinking by what they are looking at. Instead of telling him he's being "good" or "bad," I can point out that certain behaviour is simply "expected" and "unexpected."
Over time he'll come to realize we all feel our own feelings and think our own thoughts. Yes, even when it comes to something as mundane and trivial as the colour of a game piece.
For more information on TIFY, visit socialthinking.com.
For information on upcoming social thinking workshops in Canada, contact the Speech Associates.
Image: Flickr | Lauren Manning