The following excerpt is taken from Chapter
of Pervasive Developmental Disorders: Finding a Diagnosis and Getting
Help by Mitzi Waltz, copyright 1999 by O'Reilly &
Associates, Inc. For book orders/information, call
(800) 998-9938. Permission is granted to print and distribute this
excerpt for noncommercial use as long as the above source is
included. The information in this article is meant to educate and
should not be used as an alternative for professional medical care.
In the effort to tackle basic skills and then academic skills, social skills are
sometimes left in the lurch. Schools are the primary social venue for children,
but many schools are unsure how to fit social skills into their curriculum.
Community organizations that convey the social graces to "normal"
children, such as Scouting and religious youth groups, may be unprepared to deal
with a child whose social skills are far behind his peers. And even children who
interact well with their siblings may not be able to carry these skills over
easily to socializing with unfamiliar children and adults.
Not surprisingly, many children and adults with PDDs find themselves
ostracized due to barbaric manners, inability to tackle the back-and-forth of
playground conversation, and difficulty in reading common social cues. It's not
their fault--these skills do not come naturally to people on the autistic
spectrum, and parents are usually so busy teaching other essentials that messy
eating habits and such are the least of their worries. But for the person
without positive social skills, true inclusion in the workplace and community
will be elusive.
Note to adults with PDDs: Some people might be surprised to learn that
many adults with PDDs are avid readers of books about etiquette, protocol, and
body language. These books spell out the things that everyone else seems to
know. Others take courses in psychology or anthropology, or tackle self-help
books that promise to teach readers how to be successful in work, life, and
love. Depending on the book or course, this can be a good approach for many
Some systems have pitfalls, however: one adult we know took up neurolinguistic
programming (NLP), which promises to teach practitioners the secrets of
influencing others through verbal and nonverbal communication. Communication had
always been difficult for him, and he often felt that he was ineffective and
misunderstood. Although he progressed through his courses well, his
acquaintances found his efforts to be rather transparent and, ultimately,
manipulative. As always, caveat emptor!
There are many skill areas to work on, including:
- Maintaining appropriate eye contact
- Maintaining appropriate body space
- Developing a sense of empathy for others
- Giving and receiving complements
- Sharing interests and other strategies for making friends
- Decoding facial expressions and body language
- Using facial expressions and body language
- Learning conversational techniques, including openers and closers
- Determining whether a topic is appropriate for discussion
- Learning table manners
- Understanding rules for community activities, such as riding the bus or
going to a movie
- Understanding dating and sexual etiquette
- Learning grooming techniques and expectations
- Interacting with authority figures
- Using observation to determine appropriate behavior, dress, and manners in a
new social situation
Developing and using self-calming techniques can be one of the most important
social skills your child will ever learn. These techniques help your child
develop a self-righting mechanism of sorts, preventing embarrassing meltdowns
that lead to ostracism.
Many schools are implementing variations on the theme of friendship clubs or
social-skills clubs. These are small, adult-supervised groups of children
brought together to help one or more children in the group learn appropriate
social behavior. The adult--and eventually the other children--acts as a
One of the best mechanisms for teaching appropriate social behavior is the
use of social stories, a special kind of storytelling originally
developed by educator Carol Gray. Social stories provide the child with a
narrative about events that are going to happen or that should happen. They are
short, easy to remember, and can be told over and over to help the child
internalize what's expected. Here's a sample of a social story:
James Is a Good Bus Rider
When James gets ready for school in the morning, he has his coat and backpack
ready before the school bus arrives.
When the bus comes, he gives his mom a hug and gets on the bus right away.
James sits in the seat right behind the driver as soon as he gets on the bus. He
puts on his seat belt. Then he puts his backpack on his lap.
Sometimes James talks to his friends when he is riding the bus. They talk
Sometimes James draws pictures or looks at a book while he is riding the bus. He
makes sure that his paper, crayons, and books are in his backpack when the bus
gets to school.
If someone bothers James on the bus, he can ask the bus driver for help.
When the bus gets to school, James is the first to get off the bus. He waits
with Mr. Smith until all of the children have gotten off the bus, and then they
walk to class in a line.
You'll notice that the story is about all the good things that James does, or
should do, on the bus. It isn't a list of "don'ts," no matter how
tempting it might be to add a line like "James doesn't hit or bite the
other children on the bus."
"Sometimes" lines like the ones in the example above can be very
important for autistic spectrum children, who have a tendency to get stuck in
very specific routines. These lines introduce and emphasize the idea of
flexibility: sometimes we do X, and sometimes we do Y.
Some parents and teachers like to set social stories to music, which can make
them even easier to remember. Others have made them into picture books with
illustrations or photographs. For example, James might be asked to act out his
bus social story while a teacher or parent takes some instant photos. Then the
book can be written out one line to a page, with an illustration for each
Thick paper and lamination can be used to protect social stories that
children want to carry with them.
Social stories can work well for people of all ages, even teenagers and
Social-skills work may actually be harder today than it was 50 years ago,
despite everything we've learned about behavior and human development. The rules
of society are in flux everywhere, and children may not see the lessons of the
home or classroom reinforced in everyday life. For children who tend to take
rules very seriously, this can make life quite difficult. The playground may be
full of inappropriate language and behavior, diners at fast-food restaurants
wolf their food down sloppily as though no one is looking, rudeness abounds on
the television, and the freeway is full of drivers who break the rules.
Interestingly, school district officials often comment that the most
well-behaved children they meet when visiting schools are in the special
education classes, where standards are explicitly spelled out and enforced for