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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

To socialize or not to socialize .... that is the question

Many of the people who choose to work in the "helping" and teaching professions are very out-going, chatty and sociable people. Usually this works to everyone's advantage as most jobs in these fields involve friendly interactions and discussions with many different people over the space of a work-day. Over time, "folk wisdom" in the therapy/teaching sphere has formed an image of what "normal" social behaviour looks like ... and it looks a lot like the chatty interactive social style of the extroverted people who dominate these professions. Programs that are set up to teach social skills often have the goal that participants will eventually match this "norm".

But maybe that's not what's normal for everyone. If you're working with people on the autism spectrum, perhaps a better "target" social style is embodied by an engineer or a scientist or a math major. I know (and like) many engineers ... my dad, my brothers, my brother-in-law, my uncle, not to mention all the engineering and computer guys I meet in the course of a work day ... and while engineer stereotypes are over-simplifications, they also hold a fair chunk of "real-world" truth. The best thing about engineering humour (of the printable kind) is that the engineers enjoy it as much as anyone (although their comment is more likely to be "well of course, that makes sense"). Here is a comment on engineers and social interaction that I think fits this discussion:

"Engineers have different objectives when it comes to social interaction. "Normal" people expect to accomplish several unrealistic things from social interaction: stimulating and thought-provoking conversation, important social contacts, a feeling of connectedness with other humans. In contrast to "normal" people, engineers have rational objectives for social interactions: get it over with as soon as possible, avoid getting invited to something unpleasant, demonstrate mental superiority and mastery of all subjects."
 Does this sound like anyone you know?

a quick sketch I made for one of my teen clients
to explain the term "breaking the ice"

The teen-age years are excruciating for many of us ... for those who are struggling with the social side of life, they can become unbearable. Many teens with a diagnosis of AS become weary of their lack of social success and retreat to their rooms, pessimistic about their chances of having a rewarding and enjoyable social interaction, no longer willing to risk public social rejection. They don't want to be labeled, they don't want to go to a "special" group, they don't want to have their social errors highlighted and corrected in public ... they just want to have a friend to spend some time with when they're in the mood for company.

I have run a variety of social skills groups for the ASD population over the last 20+ years. In 2003, we started the Typical Teens groups for adolescents with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome.

for more specific information about this program
(clickable link on the homepage)

The cornerstone of this group model is the inclusion of trained peer mentors - in my experience, it is almost impossible to create an authentic social situation if no one in the group (besides the person running it) has intact social skills. Peers act as models of "usual" teen-aged behaviour, and create a safe "social bubble" where the AS teens can take social risks without risking public embarrassment. Our peer mentors are chosen to model a mixture of social styles - relaxed jokers, quieter bookish kids, sporty active guys, eccentric intellectuals, social butterflies. The facilitators work at arms-length, helping each person to find their social match(es). It is always interesting to watch the transformation of the AS teens over the 8 week sessions - as their (reasonable) social anxiety is counter-acted by new positive social experiences, they start to relax, to smile and laugh and obviously enjoy the company of their peers.

Which is, of course, the point of a social skills group - to find your own personal brand of "social mojo" - to actually begin to enjoy social interaction and be convinced of the benefits. The group therapy model is well suited to supported experiential learning - "hands on" practice of social skills in a "real world" setting with back-up. Feedback from past group participants (and their families) tells us that many of the social changes we see in this model carry over into their daily lives after the group is done.

(In my professional experience, de-constructing social errors in painful detail to pin-point the exact moment of social disintegration is more of a private activity (one ASD person, one support person) - I doubt than many of us would happily agree to share our most excruciating social failures with "the group".)

Of all of the evaluations we've had from participants over the years, the following comments by an AS teen participant are my favourite endorsement of the Typical Teens model:
 "Well, being with other people isn't as bad, isn't as boring, and isn't as a waste of time as it may seem ... it's still pretty interesting in a different way ... and it was enjoyable. I would recommend these groups because it would help develop other people's social skills and their understanding that company is a good thing and that being with others is quite worthwhile"
.... an engineer's perspective if I ever heard one ... but a happy engineer who is convinced that there is a point to the exercise ...

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