Subtle Social Skills (Kate Altman, M.S.)


When treating children and even adults on the autism spectrum, one of the core areas of treatment comprises social skills training.  Many--if not most--children with ASDs spend at least some time in a social skills group or class (either in school or outside of school) and much of individual therapy focuses on social skills development and education as well.

What are social skills?  "Social skills" applies to such a broad array of behaviors, knowledge, language, rituals and graces that evolve with time, age, and culture.  Teaching social skills to young children often looks similar to a course on etiquette (say "please and thank you"; allow for personal space, etc.).  However, when children with ASDs become adolescents and adults, they must contend with and fit into a much more nuanced and complex social world.  Learning and using social skills can be much more challenging--and even more crucial to happy and healthy social functioning.  After all, an adorable 5 year-old can more easily get away with not following social norms than a 25 year-old who most probably expect "should know better".  

Social skills are not just about behaving a certain way in order to fit in to society, they are also about understanding and connecting with other people in order to make meaningful relationships.  In my research with young adults on the spectrum, I asked them a lot about how they learned to use good social skills to build relationships.  One important issue that came up repeatedly was the issue of trust in new friendships.  Trying to figure out how to know if you can trust another person is challenging, especially in a new relationship...and it is a social skill.  When I asked one young woman how she knows she can trust a new friend, she described using a simple rule she had figure out for herself: a good clue that indicates someone is probably trustworthy is if they confide some piece of important information in you first.  She described realizing she could trust a new friend in college when that friend called to tell her that her grandmother had passed away.  

I thought that the young woman's revelation was simple, yet brilliant, as good social skills rules and clues often are.  For a good book on the unwritten social rules, click here. And for information on social skills-based therapies in the Philadelphia area, contact Alternative Choices.