I know that many of us take for granted the nuances of social skills; we engage in social experiences without thinking about what we will say and do. However, that isn't the case for a lot of individuals with neurodiversities. Individuals with Autism, ADHD, and anxiety struggle engaging; therefore, these skills need to be taught to create a more connected and social life for these kids/teens.
Many people think individuals with neurodiversities, especially those with Autism, desire to be alone. However, this is a major misconception, especially for those with average to above-average cognitive skills. Many kids, teens, and young adults struggle because of lack of friendships, and many may develop anxieties or depression because they may feel misunderstood or not connected to others.
It is imperative to teach social skills at a young age. However, I have seen many individuals in their teens and young adulthood succeed in learning social skills. With tools, a good coach, and practice, you can accomplish this. Below are some tips and tools that you can use to help your child or teen engage in these skills at home and in the community.
Talk About Emotions
Yes, emotions are essential when it comes to social skills. We need to know about ours and other people's emotions to understand their perspective. A way to practice is to highlight your own emotions or identify your teen/child's feelings when they have them. For example: "It seems like you're frustrated that you can't open that jar of jelly." Use them whenever you can. Another fun exercise is browsing through magazines to try and guess what people are feeling. This is to practice understanding other people's emotions and body language. Continue practicing these skills for emotional learning, recognition, and eventually, regulation.
Play Social Games
Play games that involve social interactions and asking of questions. Some of my favorites include Guess Who, Hedbanz, and Would You Rather. If you can't find a game, you can search online for any question game (think conversation starters!). Make it fun, silly, and engaging!
Good Thing Bad Thing
One of my favorite things to do with my clients and my family is talking about the best thing that happened during your day, and the worst thing—asking these questions elicits a response from your teen/child. Ask follow up questions and make sure that you also share your good/bad thing.
Coach Your Teen/Child
One of the most critical parts of individuals learning social skills is coaching the teen/child before social situations. For example, if your child has to engage in a social situation, make sure to give them rules that they can follow, e.g., greeting people, standing an arm's length away from others, minding our voice level, etc. If you see mistakes during their social exchange, try not to call them out, but give corrective feedback later on. Give a praise sandwich (praise, corrective feedback, praise). Here is what it might look like: "I am so proud of you for saying 'hi' to Lilly and her mom when we got there; I noticed you were standing too close to your friends at times, and that might have made them feel uncomfortable. I bet next time you'll remember! Otherwise, you were a rock star!"
Social skills only get better if we practice them. So after teaching them, we must make sure that we engage in social interactions. Letting your child/teen order their food at restaurants, making them ask for directions, and encouraging them to engage in social exchanges when guests come over are all ways of practicing. Remember that the more we practice, the more proficient we become in the skill we are trying to acquire. Also remember, that before they practice to coach them through the interaction.
These are just a couple of things that you can do at home and in the community to help your child/teen with social skills. If you feel that you need more help and support, you can reach out to a professional who teaches these skills, including psychotherapists, speech-language pathologists, or coaches. Make sure that the individual has experience working with individuals with neurodiversities and uses evidence-based practices to help your child/teen or young adult.
Monica Wells, LMHC is a psychotherapist in New York working with individuals with neurodiversities. She is certified to teach and coach social skills and is certified in treating anxiety disorders. For more information about Monica, you can visit www.monicawellscounseling.com