Danny's autism manifests itself in many ways; he has major sensory issues, tends to be extremely literal and the term "inflexible" seems like an understatement at times. Though those issues are overwhelming and disturbing at times, it is Danny's immature social skills that bother me the most.
For at least the last year I have been mulling over how I could best teach Danny good social skills. It's a lot trickier than I initially thought it would be. I mean, how do you teach someone skills that typically come so naturally to most people? And more importantly, how do you teach them in a meaningful way so that the child actually learns how to apply them?
Last January, when Danny was initially diagnosed with high-functioning autism, I learned about a social skills group in a town 35 miles away. I was thrilled. Finally, a group overseen by a professional trained in working with kids with autism. I thought my prayers had been answered.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. We attended the group for about three months, but in that time, Danny learned very little about social skills. He enjoyed the group meetings, but mostly because they had some cool Legos that we didn't have at home.
The group leader spent most of the time on very rudimentary skills, such as identifying different facial expressions and emotions. While that seems like it could be a great starting point, as far as I could tell, it never went very far beyond that. I know that these are definitely skills that many children with autism need help with, but Danny doesn't need much help in reading facial expressions. We've been working on that for years, and he has a fairly strong grasp of the concept. What he needs help with is knowing how to appropriately respond to those facial expressions. He needs to learn how to use his words when working with others. He needs practice in reaching out to kids and keeping a conversation going, among many other things. Basically, it seems to me he needs help with slightly higher level social skills.
Unfortunately, those are not the kind of skills he can learn from a book or from looking at magazine pictures. No, for these skills he needs hands-on experience.
After taking a break from the ineffectual social skills group, we tried a club in our town for kids with autism. Adventure Club was terrific in that it provided lots of opportunities for learning and fun.
Danny did get some socialization and learned a bit about working with others in this group even though that was not the focus. But, now that summer is over and the founder of the group has moved to another state, we are basically back to square one.
I have debated starting my own social skills group, perhaps one built around Lego building since that is Danny's passion, but many issues have held me back. I don't know if I am up to making such a big commitment. I am not at all confident that I would even know how to organize such a group and I am afraid I would get totally overwhelmed. I have so many other things on my plate that adding to it the responsibility to teach social skills to my (and other people's) kid(s) just doesn't sound like something I can wrap my brain around at this point.
After much internal debate, I think I have arrived upon a solution that could work for all of us. I think a regular social skills group is not the right fit for Danny at this time. Instead, we have decided to enroll him in the local Cub Scouts chapter. He would be interacting with kids his age on structured activities that are fun. Plus, since he is only 7, a parent needs to be there with him. So, one of us would be there to help guide Danny and remind him of proper social behavior. On top of that, we could see firsthand which skills he is most lacking in and could work on those at home.
I know Cub Scouts won't necessarily be a silver bullet for all of Danny's social skills needs, but I do think this is a perfect opportunity for him to practice the skills he does have and acquire some new ones, while having some fun.
Wish us luck!
Check out Help! SOS for Parents for more links to posts about social skills.