Ben Greene, 9, was at recess when a classmate asked him to play. “I would, but you smell really bad,” he replied. The girl walked away hurt. Ben, who has Asperger’s syndrome, had no idea why his remark bothered the little girl (“It’s a fact,” he said with a shrug). The next day, at the insistence of his aide, he apologized to her. “I’m sorry I made a personal remark, but you really do smell bad,” he said.

Anyone with a child on the autism spectrum probably recognizes that scenario and, in part, it’s just such situations that led Massachusetts to pass a law requiring that IEP teams consider and address the social skills needs of children on the spectrum. Advocates hailed the law, which recognizes that social skills are a critical part of a child’s education and development.

Despite the fanfare around the law’s passage, in some ways it raises more questions than it answers: What exactly are social skills? Who needs them? And how do we teach them? Unfortunately the gaps in the law reflect a larger gap in our understanding of how we can help, measure, and develop social skills in kids who lack them.

Though by far the most common group targeted for social skills are children on the autism spectrum, many children with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have social skills deficits, as do kids with intellectual disabilities. This fact makes developing a social skills curriculum or an IEP program all that more difficult.

Why? Because each child has different and unique needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Just call in the experts? Easier said than done. According to Michelle Garcia Winner, an author and the leading expert in the field of social skills (what she calls “social thinking”), this is an emerging field with very few experts to answer the questions. At the same time, she says, social skills are one of the most important predictors of a child’s success.

“Most people are not trained in the intricacies of the social mind,” she says.

Garcia Winner maintains that teaching social skills to some kids can be fairly straightforward. Children with low language skills or cognitive impairment may need to learn concrete social rules, such as “Don’t stand too close” or “Wait your turn,” that will suit them well. Other kids with LD or autism may need to go back to square one to learn that what they say and do has an effect on other people.

So how is a parent (or teacher) to know how to write effective social skills goals? There’s no easy answer, says Garcia Winner, but essentially the goal needs to target the root of the child’s issue.

She can also tell you what is not effective. “I see this goal a lot,” she says. “’Will improve social skills 80% of the time,’ or ‘Will make eye contact 80% of the time.’”

These goals are not measurable or specific and essentially meaningless. The team needs to figure out which skills the child needs and how they are going to teach that.

Often teams assume that if a child makes eye contact, for instance, it means a big social leap forward. But if a child makes eye contact but doesn’t have any idea why it’s important, the skill is meaningless. (Ben may have been making great eye contact when he told his classmate she smelled bad.) What children need to do, says Garcia Winner, is learn to take the perspective of another person in their interaction and to recognize how their own behavior affects that interaction. To get a child to that point, the team may have to ratchet back their goals to make sure some basic skills are in place.

A better IEP goal for a child who needs to work on conversation skills, for instance, might be: “Joe will describe what it means to ‘add a thought’ when socially speaking to others with 90% accuracy and then be able to add a brief thought of his own in connection with others’ comments, 80% of the time in structured settings.”

This goal shows that the child understands the concept behind the skill and can actually perform the skill accurately.

So how do you measure a child’s progress on such a seemingly vague skill? It’s not like many other IEP goals where you can perform a test and come up with hard data. Instead, teachers need to measure social skills goals by noting behavior changes in the child, looking for subtle changes in his interactions, says Garcia Winner. Looking at the child’s ability to talk about his own behavior and skills is another indicator of a child’s developing social awareness.

While the whole field of social skills is an emerging science, there is no question that it is key to a child’s development and success. Until more professionals are trained in proven strategies, it’s important that parents get involved.

Maybe someday soon experts will have an answer for kids like Ben who are truly perplexed by the intricacies of social interactions. But until then parents need to be sure that the people they turn to for help understand that social skills means more than the ability to make eye contact and answer when spoken to.


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