Practicing Social Skills

Finger Painting
By Dan Coulter

Does your child have Asperger Syndrome?

When's the last time you got frustrated because you told him not to do something, and two minutes later he's doing it again?

I think of this as "Teflon Shelf Syndrome." If you consider the brain as a storehouse with shelves, kids with AS seem to have some shelves that are coated with Teflon - and are tilted so things slide off easily.'s not your son's fault that his finger strays to his nostril. It's not your daughter's fault she doesn't make eye contact when you speak to her.

But that doesn't mean you have to accept the status quo. There's a tool you can use to overcome problem behaviors: practice.

It makes good basketball players into stars. It gives musicians the ability to make a living doing something they love. It can give your child key social survival skills.

What is practice? It's training the brain and muscles to respond in certain ways. The brain is an amazing organ. People with brain damage have been known to retrain another area of the brain to take over the functions of the damaged area. If you think of someone with Asperger Syndrome as having a brain that's not damaged, but just wired a bit differently, there's a tremendous opportunity to "rewire" it with appropriate behaviors.

Of course, there's a catch. Practice takes discipline and patience. And because these are not qualities normally associated with Asperger Syndrome, you may have to supply them for your child. And we're not talking about discipline in the sense of punishment. We're talking about regularly making time in a busy day to do something that doesn't produce immediate results.

This "immediate results" thing is a real challenge. It's one reason many of us are overweight. We all know eating right and exercising could give us the buff bodies we see on TV. But it's just so easy to get distracted from that diet and that exercise when it takes weeks or months to see results.

Of course, it's different when you don't have any choice. Did you know Franklin Roosevelt had what he proudly referred to as "the arms of a wrestler" in spite of - or rather because of - his polio? Because his legs didn't work, he was forced to lift himself with his arms every time he got into or out of a chair, or a bathtub, or anything. Through all these small lifts, he developed tremendous upper body strength.

If you want your child to develop strength in social skills, you need to help him exercise those skills regularly until he masters them. Think of it as installing a rubber "gripper" strip on that Teflon brain shelf.

So, how do you start?

Start by writing down what's important to you. What are your overall social skills goals for your child? Now break those goals down into specific behaviors: Having David learn to use a handkerchief. Having Jennifer learn to wait her turn to speak and not to interrupt people in mid-sentence. Having Scott learn to answer a phone politely and take a message.

Set aside some time each day to work on a skill with your child. Keep your sense of humor and make the sessions as fun as possible. When one skill is mastered, start practicing another. Reward good performance with lots of praise.

If you can keep your sessions up for just one week, they'll become a part of your routine -- and much easier to continue.

Think of how your child may describe the sessions years from now, "My mom loved me so much she spent 10 minutes every day helping me learn to hold a conversation." "My dad worked long hours, but he made time every night to show me something about how to act in public. It sometimes took me lots of sessions to get one of his lessons, but he never got mad and he never gave up."

Sometimes the biggest accomplishments don't come from doing the big impressive thing. They come from doing the little important things -- every day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the father of a son with Asperger Syndrome and the writer/producer of the video: "MANNERS FOR THE REAL WORLD: Basic Social Skills." You'll find more articles and information on his website at:

Copyright Dan Coulter 2004 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved

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