What is Social Skills?

Rethinking Social Skills Training and Programs

What we often hear

My kid never has get invited to playdates. They are always along at recess and lunch.  Why can’t they just go invite others to play or join other kids?

My kid always needs to control the play. She makes convoluted rules that other kids have to follow or scripts they have to say.  Then she gets upset when other kids don’t do it correctly or lose interests.

My kid is very competitive but cannot tolerate losing. If he loses, he would have a meltdown or blame the other person for cheating.

She gets really upset when her best friend has other friends. When her peers are talking to each other, he has to budge in and start talking loudly.  Later, she would tell me no one likes her.

My kid makes these inappropriate jokes and comments in school, and then if someone else says something they perceive as negative towards them, they would completely break down.

My kid is extremely anxious about what her peers think about her. She can never say no to them. She just stand there meekly and smile even when she is not comfortable.  I wish she could assert herself more.

Myth about Social Skills

If we just download into the child with the correct information about social rules or socialization, they would be able make the correct decision and all their problem would go away.

If the child just get over their anxiety or if we push the child into doing the actions they are not doing right now, it will get easier and it will become a habbit.

If the child just refrain themselves from doing the undesirable behaviour, then they won’t have this problem. 

If we do not nib this specific behaviour in the bud, they will not succeed in life in the future.

Understandably, parents are worried about their children.  It is hard to watch them behave like this and experience social setback, rejection, and embarrassment.  Then, implied permanence kicks in and we start to imagine them behaving like this as an adult.

What does science say?

Being able to “pass” for non-autistic is not a positive outcome for autistic mental health.

Double Empathy Problem (Dr. Milton)

Neurodivergent people often communicate differently than neurotypical people. These methods are not inferior but simply different.  Research has identified distinctive features in which neurodivergent people share information and knowledge.  Research also has repeatedly shown that neurodivergent communication. is just as effective.  The misunderstanding and poor communication occur predominantly when neurotypical and neurodivergent people try to communicate, and not due to a lack of social skills. 

Researches

Heasman, B., & Gillespie, A. (2019). Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: Distinctive features of how autistic people create shared understanding. Autism: The International Journal of Research & Practice, 23(4), 910–921. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318785172

Heasman, B., & Gillespie, A. (2018). Perspective-Taking Is Two-Sided: Misunderstandings between People with Asperger’s Syndrome and Their Family Members. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 22(6), 740–750.

Crompton, C. J., Ropar, D., Evans-Williams, C. V., Flynn, E. G., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism: The International Journal of Research & Practice, 24(7), 1704–1712. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320919286

de Leeuw, A., Happé, F., & Hoekstra, R. A. (2020). A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Cultural and Contextual Factors on Autism Across the Globe. Autism research: official journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 13(7), 1029–1050. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2276

Cats would have difficulty with learning and complying with dog’s social skills such as wagging their tails to communicate friendliness and barking correctly.  I bet we will see a lot of problematic behaviour if we force a cat to go to dog park from 9 to 3pm on Monday to Friday  

Social Camouflage (Masking)

Masking refers to the practice of concealing one’s natural behaviours, traits, or feelings to conform to social norms or expectations. Neurodivergent individuals, particularly autistic people, often engage in masking to appear neurotypical in social situations. This can involve mimicking the behavior and communication styles of others, suppressing stims (self-soothing behaviors), and hiding sensory sensitivities.

While masking can help neurodivergent individuals navigate social environments and avoid negative judgments, it often comes at a significant cost. It can lead to:

  • Mental and Emotional Exhaustion: Constantly suppressing one’s true self is draining and can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression.
  • Loss of Identity: Over time, masking can erode a person’s sense of self, as they might feel pressured to be someone they’re not.
  • Delayed Recognition and Support: Masking can make it harder for others to recognize a person’s true needs, delaying appropriate support and accommodations.
Researches

Laura Hull, Lily Levy, Meng-Chuan Lai, K. V. Petrides, Simon Baron-Cohen, Carrie Allison, Paula Smith, & Will Mandy. (2021). Is social camouflaging associated with anxiety and depression in autistic adults? Molecular Autism, 12(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-021-00421-1

McQuaid, G. A., Lee, N. R., & Wallace, G. L. (2022). Camouflaging in autism spectrum disorder: Examining the roles of sex, gender identity, and diagnostic timing. Autism, 26(2), 552–559. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211042131

I think we can all agree that regardless how hard a cat works at pretending to be a dog, it will never become a dog or truly enjoy being a dog. I also think we can all agree that a kitten should socialize with other kitten and learn the cat’s social skills from other cats.

Traditional Social Skill Programming

The image below is the material from a very popular social skill programs for neurodivergent children. Can you identify all the problem with this?

Expected behaviours for which neurotype?

Is behavioural compliance to the group a form of fitting in or belonging?

Does the person have a choice or any control over the situations they are stepping into? Do they have any power in this social situation to make changes that they need?

“Uncomfortable thoughts about us.” Are we using shame to control behaviours?

What happens to body autonomy? Does the program also teach body safety? How vulnerable are our children if this language is used by a predatory adult?

Social Communication is an art

Understanding the context in which social interactions occur is crucial for neurodivergent individuals. Unlike traditional social skills training that often emphasizes conformity, we need to recognize that social situations are infinitely diverse, naunced, and complex.  Social skills cannot be taught in a clinical setting or through rote learning. We need to take the cultural approach. Social communication is an art.

Cherish Clinic's Approach

At Cherish Clinic, we prioritize a relationship-focused, client-centred approach to support neurodivergent individuals.

Are we supporting the child in exploring their authenticity, preferences, and vulnerability?

Have we fully committed to the message that the neurodivergent child is not socially deficient?

Belonging, friendship, and social connection are supposed to give us more than we put in. How can our children experience social competence as they are now and connect with others with ease and a sense of competence?

Have we provided our children with the awareness, strength, confidence, and empowerment to protect and assert themselves?

 

Our Unique Approach

Play-Based Learning: We use play as a natural medium for social interaction. Through play, children can explore social dynamics with our neurodivergent therapists.

Co-Regulation: We assist children by attuning to their their emotions and sensory experiences, which is foundational for successful social interactions. Children can only thrive if they feel comfortable and regulated.

System and Family Involvement: We encourage parent education and school advocacy to ensure that the child’s has neurodiversity-affirming environment in all aspect of their lives. 

Respecting Individual Differences: We honor each child’s unique communication style. Our goal is to enhance their social experiences without forcing them to conform to neurotypical standards. This approach is backed by neurodiversity-affirming practices.

Jacob's Journey

Jacob, an 8-year-old autistic boy, had a deep love for mushrooms. His parents were concerned about his social skills and wanted him to fit in better with other children. Instead of traditional social skills training, we embraced Jacob’s interests at Cherish Clinic. Through play-based groups, Jacob shared his extensive mushroom knowledge with peers, which naturally fostered social connections.  They naturally developed social communication intricacy that they feel nourished by. For example, when a peer interrupts him with “oh that reminds me of….”, he felt heard and enjoy the “information dump” that follows.  He feel trust, social safety and belonging when he interrupts his peers with his own “oh that reminds me of…” information dump. 

Having access to a robust group of likeminded friends, Jacob learned skills to identify neurodivergent peers with similar preferred interests to be friends with and no longer feels the urge to interrupt conversation topic that doesn’t interests him.  He has also learned that neurotypical people communicate differently and doesn’t feel rejected when the interaction doesn’t work out. 

 

Get in Touch

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about our approach, we invite you to reach out. Our team is here to support and guide you in understanding and embracing the unique ways neurodivergent children communicate. Contact us today to discover how we can help your child thrive.

two women lying on hammock