Learning to be a friend: Helping pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD and autism achieve their social goals

There are a number of skills you need to learn in order to form and maintain friendships. Many of these skills are contextual as there are hidden social expectations unique to each situation, for example taking turns when playing a game; standing in line; visiting another person’s house or sending text messages. While most children learn these skills through observing others, some children need more direct support.

1. How do you teach a child how to interpret a social situation?

There are various approaches to teaching children on the autism spectrum how to interpret social situations, such as:

Social Stories: This is a tool that involves short, illustrated stories that describe a common social situation and the appropriate behaviour in that situation. The purpose of social stories is to provide a visual and written representation of a social situation, so that children can better understand the perspective of others and the expectations of social interactions for example, how to greet people,  taking turns, conversational skills, understanding personal space, handling emotions and problem solving. When creating or finding a social story to use, it is important to keep in mind the child’s interests, abilities, and the specific social skill that the story is trying to teach. The story should be positive and encouraging and easy to understand.

Role playing: This is another tool you can use to teach a child how to interpret a social situation. This involves acting out different social scenarios with the child allowing them to practice and learn appropriate social behaviour in a safe and controlled environment. This can also be done after using social stories.

Video Modelling: this involves showing the child videos of other individuals engaging in social interactions and the discussing the behaviour displayed in the video. Keep in mind the child’s interests to further encourage the child to learn. A lot of shows for children often teach these social skills therefore it can help using clips of their favourite tv shows to get these points across. However, be mindful of the clips you use as it needs to be clear what social skill you are trying to teach.

It is important to keep in mind that every child is unique, and therefore, different approaches may work better for different children. Know your child’s strengths and weakness in learning and use that to better assist your child.

2. What problem-solving and decision-making skills need to be learned to cope with unexpected things that crop up in social situations?

Problem solving skills are an important tool for children to cope with unexpected things on social situations. Some specific problem-solving skills that may be beneficial for children to learn include:

  • Flexibility: Being able to adjust to unexpected changes in a social situation.
  • Perspective taking: being able to understand and consider the perspective of others can be helpful in navigating social situations. Children may benefit from learning how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand how their actions may be perceived.
  • Emotional Regulation: Being able to identify and manage emotions can be important in social situations, it may help if children learn how to recognise and express their emotions in appropriate ways.
  • Communication: Being able to communicate effectively with others can be an important tool. Leaning how to express themselves verbally and non-verbally and how to interpret verbal and non-verbal cues from others will benefit them in social situations.
  • Self- Awareness: Being aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses in social situations and knowing what strategies work for them can be an important tool for problem solving.

When you are solving problems in social situations, it is good to be able to.

  • Make sure you are calm.
  • Identify the problem.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. Ask for help if needed.
  • Put the solution into action.
  • If it doesn’t work, repeat steps.

3. How do we support children to learn the hidden rules?

Social Cues are the pieces of information we subconsciously know without ever being explicitly taught them. These pieces of information are usually the hidden rules or customs of social communication and expectations within different contexts. Social cues are often learnt from an early age through observation of repeated behaviours within different environments, different people or at certain locations. Learning and understanding these cues can help us in social situations, daily life tasks and communication. Some ways of teaching these social cues other than observing others are:

Direct instruction: Teaching children about the hidden rules of social interactions through direct instruction can be helpful. This can include teaching them about body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues. You can also use social stories, video modelling and role playing to teach these cues. (See above)

Feedback and Reinforcement: Giving children feedback and reinforcement when they display appropriate social behaviours can help them to learn the hidden rules of social interactions.

Collaboration with professionals: Collaborating with professionals such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, or behaviour analysts can be beneficial in identifying the hidden rules that a child is having difficulty understanding and developing a plan to teach them.

It's also important to keep in mind that children may need repeated practice and reinforcement to internalise the hidden rules of social interactions. Additionally, it's important to be patient and understanding with the child, and to provide opportunities for them to practice the skills they have learned in real-life situations.

KidsLink Social Skills program

KidsLink is a 9-week social skills program that helps children and teens with additional needs make friends and learn communication skills in a fun, creative, small group setting. There are 6 participants in each group, and all children and teens are matched with appropriate peers.

Olivia’s parents enrolled her in the KidsLink program to build her social skills in an accepting, neuro-diverse friendly environment, without the structure and theory of "social skills courses" which do not allow for the fluidity of everyday conversations.  Having the art therapy as a conversation starter and activity of interest seemed like a great fit for their daughter.

“We wanted Olivia to have a fun, interesting time completing art projects and consolidating her conversation skills.  We also wanted her to meet like-minded teens who were willing to share their experiences and struggles in a non-threatening way”.

“Olivia has thoroughly enjoyed KidsLink and made some great friendships.  It is one of the highlights of her week. She has met a fantastic group of teens who are all accepting and encouraging of one another.  This in turn has given her insights into some of the best bits of neuro-diversity, and improved her confidence in everyday activities”.

Olivia’s parents believe that one of the main benefits of her participation in KidslInk has been the expansion of her friendship circle, the normalisation of neuro-diversity, and her enjoyment of the art itself.

“KidsLink is a gentle way to boost social and conversation skills, all while having a fun time.  The format allows teens to create a peer group that really "get it" and are willing to support one another from a position of understanding.”

For more information about KidsLink visit https://spencerhealth.com.au/kidslink-lp/