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Finding Friends and Persuading People: Teaching the Skills of Social Interaction

Many parents with learning disabled children realize the importance of teaching social skills. Yet today it is harder than ever to do so. 

John, who had recently graduated from school in computer operations, was interviewed for a number of jobs. Despite his credentials in a high-demand field, he was repeatedly rejected.

He told me he was frequently late to interviews. And so we began to work on strategies for being on time-someone to remind him when he needed to leave the house, knowing the route to the interview ahead of time, and getting there early.

After one crucial interview, I called him and asked how it went. “It went well!” he exclaimed. “I was on time! But you won’t believe what happened. The boss was late. And I told him, ‘Hey, you are always supposed to be on time for a job interview!’”

Needless to say, John did not get that job. He had made a great effort to be on time and, under the circumstances, perhaps his anger was understandable. However, he shouldn’t have expressed it. And he wouldn’t have been upset had I remembered to teach him that the applicant must be on time, but the interviewer is frequently late.

John’s consistent rejection in the job market paralleled his experiences with dating and making friends. Without the vital skills of social interaction, John’s life was destined to be lonely and unemployed.

Many parents with learning disabled children identify with John’s story and realize the importance of teaching social skills. Yet today it is harder than ever to do so. First of all, the economy often makes it necessary for both parents to spend long hours working to maintain their standard of living. Unfortunately, that means less time for family activities.

Also, social rules are changing swiftly. Rudeness seems to be rampant. Dating is so confusing that one tends to dread the moment the waitress brings the check, and a decision must be reached as to who pays. Today’s ambiguity, which started in the permissive sixties, is confusing to everyone and is particularly difficult for people with learning disabilities.

Given this situation, how can parents help? How can ACLD chapters help their member families? Here are some ideas that may be helpful although they are more easily said than done:

  1. Develop a strong family social network and try to expose your child to as many people as possible. The more people your child encounters, the more likely it is that he will meet someone who will like him and be willing to accept him and his particular problems.
  2. Treat your child with respect and insist that others do so, too. Individuals frequently speak to people with handicaps in a loud tone of voice, with a high pitch, and with condescending, paternalistic body language. Some learning disabled people imitate these speaking patterns with disastrous results. If your child is treated with respect, he will act towards others with respect.
  3. Encourage observation. Being able to accurately observe the environment is a prerequisite to receiving non-verbal signals. And people with perceptual problems can have trouble with observation. Many find their inner world more stable and prefer to day-dream instead of staying aware of their surroundings. Ways of encouraging observation include:
    • Calling the LD person’s attention to something when he appears to be “lost in space.” e.g., “Look at that tree!” “Can you hear the birds?”
    • Encouraging reactions to the environment. e.g., “Do you like this flower? Which flower do you like best?” “Look at the men building that house. What are they doing ? Do you think their job is dangerous? Would you like to do it? What do you think he’s mixing in that bin?”
    • Asking your child what he saw. Ask, “What was the most interesting thing you saw on the bus ride?” “What did you notice when you walked to school today?” “Have they completed the construction of the shopping center?”
  4. Encourage observation of non-verbal behavior. Playact a certain mood and ask the youngster to guess what it is. Ask him to guess the mood of a family member . Turn the television volume down and discuss the body language of the characters.
  5. Roleplay difficult social situations. Have your child practice asking the teacher for an extension of time for a paper or talking to an employer on a job interview. You can play the teacher or future employer and give your child feedback.
  6. Encourage mature, topic-centered conversations. Many students who have been labeled learning disabled through the school system are used to question/answer type conversations such as:

    • “How was work today?”
    • “Fine.”
    • “And what did you do?”
    • “I made hamburgers.”
    • “Did you do anything else?”
    • “The cash register.”

    In this type of conversation, the questioner does all of the work. Sometimes this is because the person with a learning disability doesn’t want to talk or has a language disability, but for many LD people, it is the only kind of conversation they know how to have. Parents and professionals should consciously change their conversational patterns to topic-centered conversations by:

    • Talking about your experiences and activities and expecting your child to listen and respond.
    • Responding with a statement rather than a question. e.g., “It’s different to make hamburgers for fifty people than for a family.”
    • Stating your point of view, when you and your child disagree, and encouraging your child to appropriately defend his point of view.
  7. Encourage your child to join group conversations. Many LD children are ignored by the family or allowed to dominate the conversation. Teach him the hidden rules of conversation-that you look at a person in a group, and they look back before you talk. If your child tends to be quiet, ask his opinion and help him to enter the conversation appropriately when he has something to say. If he dominates the group, explain that people often feel angry at those who talk too much. He may not have noticed the subtle angry glances or the attempts to ignore him. Then teach coping strategies such as:
    • Watching people’s faces as you speak.
    • Counting the number of times you speak and limiting it.
    • Learning the signals people make when they want to interrupt you.
  8. Children with language disabilities need to learn specific social skills such as:
    • Appearing to listen.
    • Looking puzzled if they don’t understand so the talker spontaneously repeats himself.
    • Maintaining eye contact as they speak and developing body language so that they can keep the floor and not allow interruptions-such as a person who tries to finish their sentences.
    • Memorizing scripts that inform people about themselves. e.g., “I work at McDonalds as a cashier. I enjoy it and have been there for three months. Most of the customers are nice, but I am looking for another job with better pay.” The person with a learning disability says this in response to “What do you do?” This memorized script helps begin the conversation. Several memorized statements, along with a few memorized anecdotes, will significantly help small talk.
  9. All children, particularly those with language disabilities, need hobbies and interests so they have something to talk about. One learning disabled young man who talks very little relates well to other people in his stamp club. Quite a number of people with learning disabilities have taken on leadership roles in computer-user groups.

Many parents read these suggestions and question if the parent is the best person to conduct social skills training, particularly after the child becomes a teenager. In my opinion, involvement of other adults is crucial. After all, socialization should take place in the community as well as the home.

The ACLD chapter can form a resource for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities to improve their social skills. Here are some possible models:

  1. Youth and Adult Section. Usually led by adolescents or adults with learning disabilities, these groups function as part of the chapter and can encourage socialization. Learning disabled adults engage in self-advocacy efforts and often plan part of the state conference.
  2. Teen Club. Usually under the leadership of a chapter volunteer parent, these groups of teenagers engage in social activities such as bowling, picnics, movies, and parties.
  3. Social Skills Classes. ACLD chapters may want to consider hiring a professional to train students in social skills or even to run a counseling group.

Dale S. Brown September-October, 1987 ACLD Newsbriefs

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