8/24/2009

What should we be telling teens with ASD about social skills?

How do you explain the finer points of social skills to kids on the autistic spectrum?

It's not just that it's hard to codify it all into rules. A lot of it--especially with middle school kids-- doesn't make sense, and shouldn't make sense even to neurotypical people, even though they take it for granted. Here's an example of what I mean, which I observed when I was in middle school.

A group of sixth graders are in their English classroom waiting for the teacher to arrive. A tall, popular girl climbs up on a desk and starts disco-dancing, while everyone gathers around the table to watch. Dancing on tables just isn't cool, and normally a middle schooler wouldn't be caught dead doing it. But no one makes fun of her or gives her strange looks. Some laugh, while others go on talking to her as if she were just sitting at her desk.

A few tables away sits a short boy with a round face that looks perpetually puzzled and afraid. He doesn't have any friends at this school yet. Seeing all the attention this girl is getting, he stands up on his own desk and, smiling maybe a little too broadly, starts disco-dancing, too. A few people give him odd looks, but most people just ignore him. He sits down a minute later.

This story turns the usual idea about social skills on its head. The usual idea is that what makes kids popular is that they don't do awkward, weird, or geeky things. For instance, they don't get up and disco dance on tables for no apparent reason. That's for the not-so-popular kids. So we normally tell aspie kids things like, "don't dance on tables and people will want to be friends with you." But here, the popular kid and the not-so-popular kid are doing the exact same thing, and are treated very differently. What makes it okay for this girl to do it, but not the boy? Yes, there are differences in body language.* But it all comes down to the reasons for the body language differences: she already has friends and is accepted, while he doesn't, and isn't. But how was she able to get and maintain friends if she does awkward things like that? And why is the same behavior okay for popular people but not for unpopular ones?

Try explaining all that to an aspie kid.

Now try explaining to the aspie kid why he should accept an unjust system like this, where what you can or can't do is determined by who you are, not by whether your actions are good or bad. Can you explain to them that they should try to fit into that without flinching? I know I'd have qualms about trying to get my kid to fit into a situation with built-in double standards. Neurotypical people take stuff like this for granted, but maybe they shouldn't.

*Yes, I'm aware that the girl did it first, while the boy was obviously copying her to get attention. The girl had confident body language while the boy did not. Aren't we still left telling aspie kids--"don't dance on tables because you'll just do it wrong and make yourself look bad, but it's ok for other people, because they do it the right way?" How are they supposed to respect us if we give them advice like that? Or perhaps we should teach them the non-awkward way to dance on tables (so to speak). But how on earth do we do that?