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Social Skills and Adults with Learning Disabilities

By: Henry B. Reiff (1999)

Have you ever encountered someone who didn't seem quite right? Was it the lack of a handshake when you extended your hand? Did he not make eye contact or maybe makes too much? Or perhaps he hardly seemed to pay attention to what you were saying, abruptly changing the subject, focusing on irrelevant details, or not quite getting the overall gist of the conversation.

You might have wondered, "Is he ignoring me, making fun of me, or is he downright peculiar? Maybe there's something wrong with him." In any case, you probably did not want to continue your interaction.

Although people who seemingly behave strangely may make us feel uneasy, confused, or even a little angry, their behavior is not necessarily indicative of psychological or emotional imbalances. Instead, they may have problems with social skills those subtle, complex codes of conduct we apply, often subconsciously, in our interactions with others. We may be biologically social creatures, but our specific conventions of social behavior are learned.

Some adults with learning disabilities find the acquisition and use of social skills to be elusive. The term "learning disability" tends to conjure images of problems with language, particularly reading and writing although it can also apply to specific difficulties in math, reasoning, attention, and organizational abilities. The unifying theme of learning disabilities centers around some sort of deficit in processing information, and herein lies a major link to problems with social skills. For some adults with learning disabilities, the same cognitive style that makes it difficult to process language, for instance, also makes it difficult to process social information effectively. Someone who does not process spoken language well, either receptively or expressively or both, may be at risk for not understanding everything that is said, or not being able to express what he or she really means.

We not only depend on language to relate to other people, but we learn to interpret nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. We learn to make eye contact, to pay attention and express interest, to wait our turn, to respond appropriately. We learn how far or how close to stand to each other, and we learn how to gauge others' reactions to us. We also learn that these conventions of social intercourse are fluid and malleable. What's appropriate in one situation, or with one person, may not be appropriate in another. Although we may bumble and stumble here and there, learning how to act appropriately with others comes naturally to most of us, more or less. We may not have had social skills taught as part of our formal education, but we become adept through incidental learning.

Adults with learning disabilities may not have difficulties with language per se, but instead do not effectively process the nonverbal elements of social interaction. Nonverbal social perception plays an essential role in our ability to relate to one another: without it, our interpersonal functioning can be clumsy if not treacherous. Worsening their difficulties, individuals with nonverbal social perception deficits are often oblivious to their social clumsiness. Thus it is not surprising that many adults with learning disabilities do not understand why their social lives are less than satisfying.

Other characteristics associated with learning disabilities may contribute to social skills deficits. Problems with impulse control and distractibility (often associated with an attention deficit), reasoning (particularly in understanding cause and effect), defining problems, and evaluating consequences have a variety of implications in social situations. These individuals may be susceptible to engaging in socially maladaptive behavior, which, in extreme cases, may lead to criminal offenses. A disproportionate number of juvenile offenders have learning disabilities; a number of researchers believe that many of them get into trouble because they do not fully understand the implications of their inappropriate actions.

Other adults with learning disabilities may not have an inherent weakness with social skills but instead have been deprived of the opportunities to learn appropriate social conduct. They may have attended school in largely segregated settings that minimized social contact with their nondisabled peers, or they may have been socially rejected to a point where they simply did not participate in many social activities. And as one adult with learning disabilities explains, his very drive to succeed and be "normal" may have had a paradoxical effect socially: "I think that because I spent so much time on my studies, I had less time to spend in development of social graces, less time to develop just hanging out. I missed out on a part of living. Has it impacted my life to this day? Yeah, no question about the fact that it's helped mold my profile of social activity."

At this point you might think that all adults with learning disabilities suffer from social skills deficits. Beware of generalizations! Many adults with learning disabilities not only have more than adequate social skills: a good number of them consider their social skills to be a significant compensation and a key to success. Adults with learning disabilities are frequently charming, suave, gregarious, likable, astute, even charismatic people.

Persons with learning disabilities are a very diverse group, and it is not surprising that many of them exhibit strong social skills. But for many others, some social interactions may be uncomfortable, unsatisfactory, or incomprehensible. They are often isolated, and they do not understand why. Can this situation change? Adults with learning disabilities who have social skills deficits can take advantage of several support systems. Numerous national, regional, and local organizations for adults with learning disabilities such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), the National Network of Learning Disabled Adults, and the Group for Independent Learning Disabled (GILD) of Maryland (to name but a few) offer a network of services and support that may help adults with learning disabilities understand and overcome many of their social skills deficits. Individual counseling may also be a good option: behaviorally-oriented therapy appears to be effective in helping people modify, change and improve their social skills. Finally, trusted friends and loved ones might help. Sensitive yet objective feedback, when requested, has led some adults with learning disabilities to recognize and even change social behaviors. Taking the initiative to change is not always an easy step, but it is the best way to start dealing with social skills.

Author's note: The quotations by adults with learning disabilities have appeared in two previous books.

Gerber, P.J. & Reiff, H.B. (1991). Speaking for themselves: Ethnographic interviews with adults with learning disabilities. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gerber, P.J. & Reiff, H.B. (Eds.) (1994). Adults with learning disabilities: Persisting problems and evolving issues. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

About the Author: Henry B. Reiff is the Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Special Education, Director of the Academic Skills Center and 504 Services, and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at Western Maryland College.

Henry B. Reiff Linkages Vol. 2, No. 2 National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center