Teaching Social Skills Frontwards

April 12, 2004



by Dan Coulter

Why do we tend to teach social skills backwards?  Instead of consistently teaching our kids manners, many of us wait until they do something wrong and then correct them.

Imagine using this approach in a driver's education class.  They'd put you in a manual transmission car with no training.  Then they'd turn on the engine and shove the car into the street, expecting you to learn to drive from the helpful suggestions yelled at you by other drivers.

Anybody think that’s an optimal learning situation?

To give us parents the benefit of the doubt, we don’t use poor teaching tools on purpose.  We do what seems obvious at the time.  But, looking back, I’m sort of amazed that I kept trying the same thing for so long when it wasn’t getting results.

Even though I knew my son had Asperger Syndrome and that he had trouble learning social skills intuitively, for years I still tried to teach him by “correcting” him after the fact.  Or rather,instead of teaching him, I corrected him.  And got exasperated when he committed the same transgressions over and over again.

Well, I finally learned that if a door is locked, you have to try another one.  In this case, the other door is explaining and demonstrating a social skill and having your kids practice it before they need it.  And it pays off.

A little while back, I introduced my 20-year-old son to another adult.   My son said,  “How do you do?”  He made eye contact and listened to what the person said -- and never once mentioned Star Wars.  He even said, “It was nice to meet you,” before he left.   I thought back to ten years ago…when this conversation seemed like an impossible goal.  But who was it impossible for?  Once I tried the right door, the skill came through.

People with Asperger Syndrome can learn manners and social skills.  Of course, how much they learn depends partly on their individual challenges and abilities.  But it also depends on how we teach the lessons we want them to absorb.

I have a friend who tells a story about her son using a “script” he’d learned in social skills class when he happened to be seated next to a younger child on an airplane.  As the mother of a child with AS, my friend was understandably nervous about how this would work out.  It worked out great, because her son asked the other child a series of questions --and listened to the answers.

Hi, what’s your name?  What grade are you in?  What’s your favorite subject?  Etc.

My friend knew this was a prepared script, but for the other child, it worked as a natural conversation.  It helped the child with Asperger Syndrome interact in a comfortable way with another person – and it hopefully was a step toward helping the son learn more about conversation and preparing him to depart from the script.

Many of the manners and social skills we want our kids with Asperger Syndrome to learn can be taught, but we need to teach and practice these skills “frontwards,” before they’re needed.   And practice is a key to success.  A little regular practice time can help embed social skills so they become second nature to our kids.

There’s no adequate way to describe how you feel when you see your son or daughter demonstrate good manners in the real world with no prompting from you.

Sometimes things are only temporarily impossible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the video, “MANNERS FOR THE REAL WORLD – Basic Social Skills.” His website is: www.coultervideo.com.

Copyright Dan Coulter 2004    Used by Permission    All Rights Reserved

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