When my son was in middle school, I was very involved in his school and volunteered for lots of committees. This was very selfish on my part. I wanted to spy on him in a way that would be natural and unobtrusive. I learned a lot about his behavior in his “natural habitat”. I also learned that he does things that seem odd. For example, when moving between classes, he would hold his binder and books on his shoulder, rather than across his chest. I don’t know WHY he did this. It made no sense. It couldn’t be more comfortable, or more efficient. His elbow stuck way out and I’m sure he poked people all the time with it. There is no way he ever saw anyone else carrying books this way, so it was a puzzle to me. After observing this more than once (the first time I saw it I thought there might be a good reason for it), I asked him about it and his response was that he didn’t know how to carry his books because no one ever showed him how to do that.
This was a real confirmation for me of what I already knew. He isn’t going to learn by example, so I really DO have to teach him how to do things, both at school and other places. I started making a list of the things that he could get away with when he was younger, but were no longer cute, since he was basically the size of an adult. I made a binder of social stories over the summer before high school and called it “The Way It Is”. It was sort of a hidden curriculum that was tailor made for him. The other thing it did was instead of just telling him “the way it is”, like many books about social skills do, there was an explanation of why this was the way it is. When something would come up that was covered in the binder, I would remind him about it and go over it with him.
We knew as parents of young children on the spectrum that they don’t learn from their peers like other kids do, and it was up to us to teach them to play and to have conversations and what they can do to make friends. This can be exhausting at first because there are so many things that they need to learn. What I was reminded of in observing my own child as he got older is that this doesn’t really change. They still don’t always learn from watching their peers. Or sometimes they TRY to be like their peers and they fail miserably at trying to be cool and trying to fit in. There is nothing sadder than a young person with autism trying to be a hipster and just missing the boat enough that it makes them look even stranger than if they hadn’t tried.
So how to continue reminding them of these social rules as they get older? It gets tricky because you don’t want to be that mom that micromanages their young adult child. Informing starts to look like nagging. My solution is to let the electronics take over via Instagram. With the tag #persever8, every Wednesday, we post #thewayitiswednesday and list these hidden curriculum rules with a photograph or cartoon to help explain the rule. The hope is that kids will see the rule and discuss it with someone who can explain further. We do pull it up at dinner sometimes and I ask my son if he has any questions about the reason for the rule. It has been nice to see that friends of his are beginning to look for our weekly posts.
I’m hoping that this will be a resource for young adults on the spectrum that helps them remember the social rules. The pictures will probably stick in their heads more than the words will, but hopefully they can access this when they get into situations that are difficult for them. It is a way they can use social media (as they see their peers doing) to help them navigate life. I know that when I remind my son of the social rule, he can act appropriately. My hope is that eventually he won’t need to be reminded and he will act appropriately on his own.
How do you help your children with ASD learn social skills? What challenges do you face as your children get older? Other parents’ perspectives are always welcome here.