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Learning disabilities are school related problems, closely tied to the old “3 R’s- Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic” ’-yet the byword with parents often seems to be “social skills-that’s the bottom line!” Indeed, adults with learning disabilities find, too, that their successes or failures in their personal lives or jobs are often more affected by their social skills than by their academic learning.

Adults with learning disabilities who are beginning to share their successes (and their failures) in life have indicated repeatedly that many of the problems they have had are related to social skills generally taken for granted by others without learning problems. They have had to learn these skills, often completely on their own, after very painful social and vocational experiences of failure.

These areas of learning are usually considered to be chiefly social, because although they are not exclusively so, all of them have certain social implications. All seem to be related either to the learning disabilities of the individual, or to some of the characteristics of Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), a frequent accompanying problem.

In most of the literature, the focus is on the deficit side of these problems as they affect children’s relationships and self esteem as children, rather than on the positive learning which might help children and adults with learning disabilities avoid the social and vocational penalties they might otherwise suffer.

Social skills deficits

Social skills deficits may be related to impulsivity, both verbal and motor, poor visual perception of facial and body language cues, poor auditory perception of vocal cues, invasion of the personal space of others, inappropriate touching, untidiness, disorganization, and a number of other such problems. Mood swings, overreaction, and depression may also provide problems for the individual with learning disabilities.

For example, Roger is a brilliant designer. Some of his learning disability and AD/HD problems were overlooked because society generally is more tolerant of quirky behavior in creative artists. But Roger often failed to get important contracts in projects for which his talent and creativity seemed to make him a clear choice. It seems that among Roger’s LD-AD/HD related problems was great difficulty in reading social signals and body language. He was unable to interpret the signals given in an interview or during a design presentation which signaled that the interview was over, and that he should thank the interviewer for his time and leave. In other words, Roger overstayed his welcome and often talked himself out of a job.

Importance of early intervention

Parents and teachers can help children with learning disabilities learn to deal with some of the common problems they experience in such a way that these problems do not hit home in adulthood for the first time. Early intervention can help teach the skills other children learn almost automatically, and provide plenty of practice in developing strategies which will help in ensuring greater social acceptance in childhood and adolescence as well as greater social and vocational competence in adulthood.

Strategies for early intervention at home

Some of the most useful techniques, ideal for parents to use on a day-to-day basis, combine self talk, role-playing, and reinforcement. Self talk is simply describing your own techniques for dealing with particular situations so that the learning disabled child becomes aware of what the parent is doing, and why.

Self talk

For example, a parent might say, “Since I know that I want to look nice when I go out, I’m going to go look in the mirror and see if I look all right. Oops! I think I need to comb my hair before I go.”

Certainly, most adults would take a quick glance in the mirror before going out. Few, however, would make a point of describing to a child what is happening, or why. This is exactly the sort of behavior the child with a learning disability might not notice, but the non-LD child would pick up without instruction.


Parents might lead the child with learning disabilities to perform the same action, and then reinforce (praise or reward) good observation. “Let’s see what you might need to do before we go to grandmothers Oh, your shirt is dirty? Good for you for noticing! Let’s get a clean one on.”


Role-playing can be useful in helping children learn many of the social conventions with which learning disabled adults have difficulty, but which most non-LD children learn easily through simple exposure. For example, parents might play “What is the thing to do ifs” or “What is the thing to say if” as a good car trip game or even a dinner table game. “What is the thing to do if you are at your friend’s to play, and her mother says ‘My, it’s getting late. It will be time for supper soon’?”

“What is the thing to say if someone calls and you answer the telephone while Mother and Daddy are having an argument?”

In role-playing, parent and child might take turns in the roles. Part of the time, the child should make up the situation, and the parent should play the role of the child giving the answer. This gives the child the opportunity to think of social situations which require good social skills, and lets the parent model appropriate responses without “preaching.”

Types of social skills affecting adult LD success

Some of the common adult problems related to learning disability or AD/HD which may cause social or vocational difficulties are listed below, along with early intervention strategies which parents and teachers may find helpful.

Adults with visual perception problems often miss the messages that people send and receive through facial expression. Such common expressions as a frown, narrowed eyes, or pursed lips, which might signal that what is being heard is inappropriate in some way, are often missed. Parents and teachers can help by using roleplaying often, or by simply asking for feedback in day-today situations: “David, what do you think my face is saying to you? Do I look like I am pleased about what you are doing, or not?”

Difficulty with auditory perception more often results in problems in interpreting vocal tone. Practice with the child in noticing and responding to such vocal cues as rising volume, sounds of exasperation and anger, or tones of impatience or boredom.

Language and social conventions

A common problem for some learning disabled adults is not recognizing the language conventions people use daily. Perhaps the most common is the recitation of physical woes which may follow the innocuous “Hi, there, how are you?” or “How’s it going” Lots of practice with such common expressions, including what the expected reply might be, can be helpful.

Knowing just how loudly one is speaking, and how closely that loudness level approaches the right level for a particular situation, is difficult for some adults and children with learning disabilities. Parents can use particular cues, such as hand signals or cue phrases (“use your indoor voice” or “your almost whisper voice”) to help the child reach the right level. When the child is speaking appropriate level, provide praise: “That was good-you used your indoor voice the whole time at dinner tonight!”

Skills in asking for help in receiving information

Sue is a secretary with learning disabilities. Her charming “I know this message is important, so I need to write it down. Would you say your name again for me, please?” disarms even the most impatient caller to the office where she works, and gives her time to get the written messages she needs to supplement her memory problems. She had to learn by trial and error, rather than by direct instruction, how to get both the time and the repetition she needs to be the topnotch secretary she is.

Students with learning disabilities are rarely taught how to get their regular classroom teachers to give them information in a way they can best use it. The parent or special teacher can help the child learn to say, “I want to remember-can you say it again for me?” instead of “Huh?” or to say “I have to write it down-can you give me more time?” or even “I want to get a good grade-please explain the directions to me one more time.”

Body awareness skills

Poor body image and lack of awareness of the position of body parts can make adults with learning disabilities appear awkward or even provocative. Role-playing, sitting in various chairs or couches, getting out of cars, sitting or standing up, walking up or down stairs, or performing a variety of ordinary physical activities, with the parent and the child taking turns observing and practicing the moves, can be helpful. Parents with camcorders can use them while youngsters act out their own skits and then view themselves.

Mealtime behavior, too, is often difficult for adults and children who lack ease and grace. Too much tolerance of poor table manners in children can be socially crippling for the adult who must be able to manage social conversation and table manners simultaneously. One or two “table manner practice” meals a week can be ideal training time for the whole family, including the non-learning disabled siblings. Restaurant practice, with discussion of what foods are easiest to eat in public social situations can be useful as well.

Organizational skills

Not exclusively a problem of people with learning disabilities, disorganization builds upon itself to further complicate life. For the individual with learning disabilities, however, its complications are many. Disorganization leads to visual distraction, time consuming backtracking to find things or do something that would have been easier done earlier. Well meaning parents of learning disabled children often keep the child’s environment organized, instead of helping the child learn the skills for himself or herself.

Parents or teachers can work with the child to organize things in a way that is personally helpful by having the child be a part of the process: “Where would be a good place for you to put all the things you need to take to school each morning? If you find a place that is easy for you to remember, I’ll help you get things there each night before bedtime” or “How can you arrange your desk so that you have room to work, and still have all the things close that you might need?”

Personal space awareness

Personal space, that invisibly defined area surrounding a person which varies in extent according to culture and personality, can be invaded by a person who doesn’t easily observe body language or facial cues as to how much closeness a person can tolerate. Learning disabled people who also have spatial discrimination problems may move too close or touch inappropriately, and not be aware of the other person’s backing away or negative response.

Children with learning disabilities may stand too close and miss visual cues, and they may touch the other person often and inappropriately, but they may also touch or handle other objects in the environment, such as items on the teacher’s desk or decorative objects in a living room. Adults with this problem often find themselves misunderstood. Men may be thought fresh or pushy, and women may be thought to be inviting physical attention they do not want if they stand too close to others or touch inappropriately. Both men and women may be thought too forward or even threatening.

Mood swings, overreaction, and depression

A variety of emotional difficulties may accompany the social skills problems of children and adults with learning disabilities. While social skills training is a natural area for direct help by parents, more severe social and emotional problems can best be treated by those with special training. Parents can look to the school for help in locating school based or community based counseling services. Parents of adults with learning disabilities can encourage their adult children to seek assistance as well.


Whether or not social skills are the “bottom line” for individuals with learning disabilities, it is certainly true that children with good social skills have more opportunities for positive interactions with their peers, and enhanced ability to benefit from academic and prevocational training. For help with children’s social skills deficits, parents may wish to seek the assistance of their child’s teacher. Social skills training may be written into the IEP, just as other skill training might be. Helping your child learn those things he or she needs to achieve this goal can be time well spent, and seeing your child achieve success both vocationally and professionally is more than ample reward.

About the author

Dr. Hayes is Professor of Special Education at Texas Woman’s University. The author of several books published by Academic Therapy Publications, she is the mother of an LD child through whose learning problems her own were discovered.

By Marnell L. Hayes Their World 1994 National Center For Learning Disabilities
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