Understanding social cues and forging new friendships can be challenging and scary for special needs children. It is the very personal interaction between two people that has the potential to cause anxiety. Helping your child build social skills will help with family relationships, peer/classroom interaction, and their future jobs. Social skills help us positively bond and interact with those around us and is a “language” that children learn differently.
Here, we will go over some of “the rules” associated with social skills, as it relates to special needs children, and how to encourage these interactions. Patience, persistence and encouragement is key!
Eye Contact: Eye contact is used to convey listening and value. Everybody likes to be heard, and eye contact helps reassure the speaker that he or she is being listened to! Below are some methods used by families and professionals to help encourage eye contact when working with children:
The sticker method: Place a sticker on your forehead. Sit down at eye level with the child and engage them in eye contact, even if only building up to 60 seconds. Encourage them to continue to look at the sticker as long as they can. Once you feel your child has become more comfortable looking at the target, you can begin to involve conversation.
Puppets: Puppets are a fun and non-threatening tool that can be used to help develop eye contact when held near your face. This encourages the child to interact with an object with the goal to lead up to making eye contact with you while you talk. Having your child talk to a picture of a person may be helpful as well, possibly making it less intimidating.
Another tool can be to use social outings to “people watch” and/or watch television with your child while pointing out the social skills you are working on. Drawing attention to two individuals, who are looking at each other’s faces while talking, can help reinforce the lessons you are trying to teach.
Make a big deal out of it. When your child is able to maintain eye contact for the desired amount of time, rewards work best! You can verbally reward the child such as “Way to look my way!”, a high five, or a treat such as a sticker, M&M or whatever currency your child will respond to. Just make sure that you convey how proud you are of them (all while making eye contact, of course)!
Taking turns: Taking turns when talking is a skill learned in real life that needs real practice. Below, you will find some helpful ideas for helping your child understand this process.
Talking Stick: A talking stick is an old Native American tool used for speaking. One person has the opportunity to talk while holding the stick, while the others must remain silent.
Timers: An hourglass or other visual timer can be a useful tool when helping children understand the dance of language. The visual cue allows the child to see how much time they have to talk, or how much time the other person has to talk. While one person is talking, the other person must practice their listening skills. Should you feel your child may become anxious while waiting, consider use of a soothing item or “stimming” item to help alleviate the anxiety until it is their turn.
Group stories: This can be a fun, entertaining and very easy tool. One person starts off a story (keeping it limited to a few sentences); then “passes the story off” to the next person, who adds more to the story; then on to the next person! Everybody involved would have to have a clear understanding that it is a fun “game” and that nobody can get mad if the story doesn’t go the way they want it to. Keep it silly and fun. This can be a wonderful game to play while in the car or waiting at the doctor’s office or at your favorite restaurant.
Board games: This is a fun activity for everybody that encourages taking turns. Certain toys such as building blocks can encourage teamwork as you work on building something together!
The use of a social story: “Using social stories at home and in therapy are a perfect way to address possible social situations, which may arise in a child’s day-to-day life. By role playing or reading a social story, the child can work through these situations and learn how to react or handle possible social problems, such as bullying, understanding body language, or classroom etiquette. The use of social stories is not limited to the Autism Spectrum population. These social stories are beneficial for any child with difficulty in social relationships, attention, or classroom participation,” states Caroline Stough, Speech Pathologist with Easter Seals Central Alabama.
There are a wide variety of social stories available through many books and websites. You can also learn how to create your own unique social story for your unique situation. At the bottom of this article, you will find some helpful websites and books to help you identify the social story that may fit your child’s need.
Don’t criticize. Your child is learning a new skill. Although it can require a great deal of patience, understanding, and perseverance on your part, make sure to keep any frustrations you have “in check”. Criticizing your child can lead to self-consciousness, inappropriate behavior, and resentment. Try to find ways to encourage yourself as well as your child!
Don’t look away. For busy parents who are cooking dinner, going through mail, on the computer or involved in other numerous tasks, be mindful of making eye contact every time you interact with your child. Try not to yell down the hall or speak to them while loading clothes into the dryer. Be sure to look at your child when they are talking to you, and have them look at you (as much as possible).
Varina Mead is the Director of Marketing at Easter Seals Central Alabama.