The following are questions and answers from Dr. Tracy Gray on this topic.
What social networking sites are safe and appropriate for a student with learning disabilities?
Social networking and online communication can be a great way for kids and adults to connect with each other and make new friends, so it's a natural choice for a student who is struggling to make friends.
However, you're right in being concerned about online safety and finding an appropriate place for a middle school student to socialize. Many of the more popular social networking sites (MySpace and Facebook) and virtual worlds (Second Life) may have questionable content. You may consider checking out kid-friendly versions of adult websites, such as Teen Second Life, or you may want to stick with websites that are especially for kids.
Fortunately, there are a number of new social networking sites designed specifically for teens and pre-teens. Imbee is one such site, designed for teachers, parents, and young children. As a teacher, you could also join Imbee and keep an eye on your student's interactions to make sure they're appropriate. Whyville is another popular website for kids. In this virtual world, kids can create their own character and chat, play games, and engage with kids from around the world. Students earn Whyville money by playing games, can explore the town, go to the beach, start their own business and engage in a variety of other activities with other kids. There are also sites affiliated with children's products and entertainment, such as Disney's Club Penguin that have online games, chat, and social networking features. Club Penguin is free to join, but advanced features require paid membership, so this may be a consideration.
Where can young adults with learning disabilities find social networks and dating sites?
Given the explosion in online dating in recent years, I did a quick search for sites that tailor to individuals with disabilities. There are a number of relevant websites to consider, but many of these seem to be geared towards individuals with physical disabilities. However, your nephew might want to check out a few to look at some profiles. The Whispy directory has a good list, with everything from dating sites for the deaf and those for individuals with neurological disabilities.
Depending on how your nephew's learning disabilities and social skills affect his relationships, he may want to consider joining a group locally for adults with LD. There he might find support and friendship from other adults in similar situations and perhaps get some dating/relationship advice. Meetup is a good choice for finding groups locally. When searching for Los Angeles, I found a number of groups for adults with ADHD, adults with high functioning autism/Asperger's, and others. Meetup is also a great way to find local groups that share your nephew's interests. Meetup groups exist for just about any topic or interest you can think of — from monthly wine and cheese parties to knitting clubs to hiking groups or Scrabble players. Your nephew is sure to find at least one group in his area, and it can be a great way to meet people and make new friends.
Finally, it might be helpful for your nephew to read a bit about how his learning disability and potential social skill deficits can affect his relationships and life beyond school. It can be difficult to make the transition from school to the "real world" and navigate new relationships on your own, but there a number of excellent resources and groups that can help.
How can I use software tools to teach my young adult son appropriate conversation skills?
Often kids with Asperger's or other autism spectrum disorders are extremely motivated by technology tools, and tend to learn very well from videos, software, and other visual representations of social situations. Because your son has already worked on social skills training, he is likely familiar with social stories, social modeling, and appropriate behavior for different situations. However, when in new, exciting or unfamiliar situations, he may forget what he's learned and have difficulty regulating his behavior or modulating his voice.
In novel situations, he may benefit from something more 'portable' to cue him about voice modulation and appropriate conversational behavior. Many young people have begun using everyday devices such as mobile phones and iPods to serve as portable reminders of the social skills they've learned in class. Kids can load social scripts, reminders, short video clips, cues about conversation skills, turn taking and social interactions right onto these devices to help them remember previous lessons. Technology tools such as these have the added benefit of being highly motivating for many teens, making them more likely to use them.
You may also want to consider multimedia tools or software at home to help reinforce the social skills lessons your son has learned in class. It could be that additional repetition and practice of the social stories and lessons he already 'knows' may help him generalize appropriate behavior when in new situations. Since you are particularly concerned with conversation cues and voice modulation, you might look into Model Me Kids, as they have videos on both topics. You should also talk to your son's teachers and see whether you can get copies of the videos and activities he uses in class, so you can continue to reinforce the lessons at home, and when out together in public places.
What technology products can help students learn social skills?
Most people learn social skills simply by watching the way their friends and family interact. But some people may struggle with learning how to behave in social situations. This could be because of a disability that makes it difficult to recognize non-verbal cues and social rules; others, like your nephew, may struggle because anxiety prevents them from engaging in the types of interactions that would allow them to practice social skills.
In either case, individuals who struggle with social skills need opportunities to engage in social interactions and practice appropriate behavior. Because social skills can be difficult for some individuals to learn, it is important to have plenty of chances to practice in a variety of different situations.
It may be a good idea for your sister to speak with her son's teachers, as well as school counselors and special educators. They may recommend that your nephew work with an Occupational Therapist or school counselor on a social skills program.
It can also be helpful for family members to help out with social skills practice. You can find a number of suggestions for teaching social skills in Practicing Social Skills: How to Teach Your Student Social Interactions. There are also a variety of resources available in the Behavior and Social Skills section of this website.
Technology solutions may also be appropriate for your nephew. One benefit of using technology to give social skills practice is that students can engage in an interaction — like asking a classmate for something appropriately — a number of times until they get it right.
In real life situations, students often only get one chance to interact appropriately. A variety of multimedia tools are available that can be helpful in teaching appropriate social interactions; you can find suggestions in Multimedia Instruction of Social Skills.
One important thing to keep in mind is that research has shown that students learn social skills best when they learn them in a real-life situation and in a variety of different formats. So an ideal social skill program for your nephew might include work with teachers at school to practice school-based interactions (working with a partner, hand-raising, asking to borrow rather than taking, etc.), work with family and friends to practice outside interactions (riding public transportation, responding to adults, getting along with siblings, etc.) and the use of technology tools for additional practice.