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Teaching the Intangibles - May 2009

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Teaching the Intangibles

By: Jennifer Jacobs, M.S. CCC-SLP


Exchanging conversation. Listening patiently. Cooperating with others. Taking turns. Respecting personal space. These social skills are learned behaviors that most children acquire in their day-to-day interactions with their family, friends and schoolmates. But, as we all know, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do not have this aptitude which most parents take for granted.

While a great emphasis is usually placed on academic learning upon which success in school can be measured, experts agree that it is critical that attention also be put on teaching social skills to children with ASD.

“Students with social learning challenges benefit from learning to think socially. Our students need to learn how to examine social situations, understand why it matters to demonstrate a range of social behaviors and how to apply their knowledge in different contexts by using appropriate social skills,” Michelle Garcia Winner, Speech-Language Pathologist and Author who has a private practice in San Jose, CA, Michelle G Winner's Center for Social Thinking, Inc.

Children with ASD are not aware of the “hidden rules” or expected behaviors in various social situations. It is important to recognize this when they are young – before they enter school – and set the stage for both academic and social success. That means specifically teaching them what is appropriate social interaction at school, on the playground, in the store and even at home.

The observation of the behavior of others can take a number of forms. Learning opportunities can be elicited while reading books, watching television or videos, and playing board games designed specifically for the development of social skills. More recently, social skill software training programs – which appeal to even very young children because of the “play appeal” that accompanies computer games – provide opportunities for learning, as well as practice and reinforcement, which are critical to success.

Rita Batcho M.Ed., M.A. CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist in Virginia, has had great success with Preschool Playtime, from (Social Skill Builder), for children age three to five who have a developmental disability.

Said Batcho, “The skill set selections offered by Preschool Playtime -- Play Skills, Making Friends, Social Emotions and Appropriate Behavior -- are concerns expressed by parents of preschool children. One of the things I like about the program is that the professional has the opportunity to tailor the selections for each student.”

According to Batcho, peer interaction is a critical piece in the development of social skills for children with ASD. In the classroom, the children strengthen language skills by engaging in various play scripts in an environment that is organized to provide optimal creative space that enhances imagination and exploration. The Preschool Playtime program, she says, provides a fun complement in the development of their social skills via the use of technology.

“The graphics are child-friendly with familiar objects, scenes and play routines,” said Batcho. “Consistently, the preschoolers are a captive audience enjoying the animations and music. Furthermore, the children exhibit a greater occurrence of spontaneous non-verbal and verbal language when viewing the program.”

The use of a CD-ROM in itself offers other benefits. The professional can show video clips of real children in different social situations. The children must choose the correct way to handle each scenario. By answering correctly, the children receive supportive and immediate reinforcement. The ability to repeat the same scenario over and over can help them internalize the socially acceptable actions and reactions so they will, in turn, carry concepts outside of the therapy room.

Michelle Henderson, M. Ed., Director of the IASIS Learning Center in Denton, TX, confirms the value of a CD-ROM program, such as Social Skill Builder’s Preschool Playtime, with the younger set. Her experience with four-year-olds with ASD convinced her of the value of Preschool Playtime, and she was confident that they would generalize the skills learned into their social behavior.

One of her students who was particularly successful with the program was Dillon*, a boy who had had difficulty answering questions, as well as difficulty interacting with other children.

Henderson explains, “Normally, Dillon would ignore any question that was asked of him, and keep talking about a topic that he wanted to talk about. He preferred to play alone than with the others. His mom told me that he loved computers. So, I knew immediately that he would enjoy the program.

The music at the beginning of the program caught his attention! Then, when the little boy slides down the slide (in one of the vignettes), he laughed. It was nice to share his enjoyment in the program. He appeared to watch the video clips closely on level 1 (the easiest level). At first, he did not answer the questions correctly. I would allow him to make the choice at first. The next day, I made sure that he got the answer correct. I wanted him to "feel the success." The plan worked. He got better when answering the questions. When he got the answer wrong, he would always say, ‘Sorry!’”

Henderson received excellent feedback when, after the first week of implementing the computer program into his day, his parents began to ask "What is the Preschool Program?" She learned that he had begun to sing the song on the CD at home. For additional reinforcement, Dillon’s mother purchased the program so she could use it at home with him.

Other four-year-olds in her group enjoyed watching the children on the CD-ROM play hide and go seek. They would take turns pushing the space bar (to continue the program), adding to the lesson. It kept the children’s attention, which is often a challenge with this age group.

Said Henderson, “Based on my experience, I believe that the program is very reinforcing.”

Garcia Winner agrees.

“Showing students video clips of expected and unexpected ways in which to handle specific social situations, such as those demonstrated in Social Skill Builder’s programs can be very helpful,” she said. [Note: This is the quote I added from Michelle Garcia Winner, based on your request. The rest of this quote pertains to her work with middle school boys, which does not fit at all with this article.]

Without the social skills they need, children with ASD may dread any interaction with others, avoid all social situations and begin to feel isolated. It is essential for professionals and parents to address this deficit early to avoid a downward spiral that can lead to anxiety and depression. If these children carry their social inadequacies into adulthood, they may spend their lives feeling lonely and rejected.

By utilizing the tools available, it is possible for social skills to be taught effectively. Children with ASD can realize their potential, both intellectually and socially. By working together to determine what is the best strategy for each child, parents, educators and professionals will see that children with ASD can achieve social, as well as academic, success.

Jennifer Jacobs, M.S. CCC-SLP, is co-founder of Social Skill Builder (http://www.SocialSkillBuilder.com), a company launched in 1999 to provide computer-based tools for teaching social skills to children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Jennifer, along with her sister and co-founder Laurie, developed the software line when she recognized a deficit in quality products for children and adolescents with social competence issues. Contact Jennifer at [email protected]

*Not his real name.

This Month's Featured Author: Jennifer Jacobs, M.S. CCC-SLP

Jennifer Jacobs, M.S. CCC-SLP, is co-founder of Social Skill Builder, a company launched in 1999 to provide computer-based tools for teaching social skills to children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Jennifer, along with her sister and co-founder Laurie, developed the software line when she recognized a deficit in quality products for children and adolescents with social competence issues. Contact Jennifer at [email protected]

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Tags: May 2009 Social Newsletter SLP Autism Article