A Balanced Approach to Teaching Social Skills



I recently read a couple of great posts on social skills training from M Kelter of Invisible Strings that connect to the idea of balance. M speaks of the real emotional dangers of social skills approaches that force people to change who they are:

In a world that puts so much pressure on people to assimilate and resemble others, being different can hurt…but learning to hide those differences? That can be equally destructive, if not more so.

I don’t know what the answers is for this…how the balance is struck.

via Etching Helvetica: stories from the autism spectrum

It is indeed a complicated issue. But at the risk of oversimplifying, I think that M has identified the answer: balance.

In the field—or community—of autism, there are strong feelings about social skills approaches. Without wading too deeply into that debate (which you can read more about from Karla Fisher, for starters), the debate sometimes breaks down into:

  • Teach-Skills Group: people (mostly neurotypical) who argue that autistic folk need to be taught social skills, that it’s essential in order to be successful in our society
  • Don’t-Teach-Skills Group: people who argue that autistic folk don’t have anything to gain from learning neurotypical social skills from neurotypical people

What’s implied by the Teach-Skills Group’s assumptions is that in order to be accepted, one must act “normal,” like “everyone else,” i.e., like neurotypical people. An example is eye contact training, something that many autistics describe as distracting or even painful. This can put autistic people under a lot of pressure to conform in a way that can lead to the kinds of emotional destress that M discusses.

However, the Don’t-Teach-Skills Group may be taking things too far: there are certain social expectations in our society that, if not followed, can lead to unpleasant results for all people involved. If one doesn’t compromise at all on their idea when working on a group project at work, for example, the project can stall, and that person may be reprimanded or even fired.

M again clarifies this division quite well:

Because of this tension, discussions about social skills training often lapse into a binary either/or dynamic. It’s described as either helpful or destructive, the end. Once that framework is in place, it’s tough to really sound out any nuances with the topic (which is understandable, given some of the bad history there).

via Autism/Aspergers Q and A: social skills training and managing negativity

The Balance Challenge is all about nuance—the many, many places in between two extremes. We can begin to find that space by looking at this:

Finding a Balance Between Exposing People to New Ideas and Embracing Differences

expose-embraceBoth are valid: it’s important to expose people to ideas they’re not aware of AND it’s crucial to accept what makes people different

But exposure only, without embracing, and social skills training becomes a one-sided, stressful, high-pressure environment

And solely embracing, without exposure, can rob autistic folks of helpful information about the neurotypical social world

If neurotypical people (teachers, therapists, friends and family) are charged with teaching social skills to people with autism, they can:

  • expose autistic folk to common social expectations… without demanding they act them out
  • explore the reasons why these social expectations exist… without trying to convince them they’re universally correct

And autistic folk learning social skills can:

  • offer their perspective on the social world… without insisting that the neurotypical one is wrong
  • discuss what’s challenging about NT expectations… without refusing them outright

Like all learning and growth, this process may be challenging or uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be so much so that people with autism experience emotional duress. Hopefully, they can work with a trusted neurotypical professional or friend.

And together, neurotypical and autistic folk working with one another can decide which skills are crucial to learn and understand (greeting a principal/boss, maybe?), and which are a matter of difference in perspective (eye contact, perhaps?).

Striking this balance is crucial to teaching autistic people, while honoring and validating people’s different perspectives, something almost everyone can agree is at the heart of being social.

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