Social Skills Classes: No Empathy for Tweety Bird

April 2nd was World Autism Awareness Day, so we would like to dedicate our April newsletter to Malcolm and all the other kids like him who are so near and dear to our hearts.  Recent statistics show that the number of children diagnosed with autism is increasing….in fact, one in 54 boys was diagnosed with autism in recent years.

We don’t know why those numbers are increasing.  But we do know that autism can be a debilitating condition that impairs cognitive functioning on various levels.  That does not mean that children with autism are low functioning.  On the contrary…..many are gifted musicians or mathematicians or athletes.  Malcolm, for example, could quote the stats for all of the football teams in the NFL.

But children with autism frequently have problems with social thinking….they don’t know how to take the perspective of others or figure out their motivations…..they don’t know how to think about other people thinking about them.   And that problem is big…..really big…….because that’s what you need to interact socially……and that’s what you need to understand what you read.

What is more important in life than those two things?  In fact, I frequently tell our parents, “If your child can understand what he reads and interact socially, he can have a successful life”.   There is technology and professional help to assist with the rest.

That brings us back to Malcolm.  Here is his story……..

Malcolm was identified as an “early reader”.  He learned phonics before he started kindergarten, and he could sound-out the words on practically any page of text.  But Malcolm didn’t have a clue what the literature meant.  When reading a story called “A Good Bike Rider, Malcolm called out these words…..”The girl was reading her new bike.  It was yellow with white stairs.  She was a fast reader”.  That was my first clue that Malcolm wasn’t connecting with the text.  It had no meaning to him.  Malcolm was struggling severely with reading comprehension.

Malcolm was also in trouble on the playground.  He couldn’t read social cues.  He didn’t know how to enter a group and figure out the topic of conversation  and  add  a  related  comment.     He assumed that everyone loved football statistics as much as he did, and he interjected football comments into every conversation.

Without the ability to read social cues, Malcolm made regular social faux pas.  A group of children could be in the middle of a tense Four Square game, and Malcolm would ask if they knew Tim Tebow. His teacher could be explaining how to multiply double digit numbers, and Malcolm would tell her the 49ers win-loss record.

Malcolm was setting himself up for ridicule.  And by third grade, kids can tell the difference.  The teasing had begun!

Malcolm’s treatment plan was trifold.  We needed to beef up Malcolm’s reading comprehension, so we put him in our literacy program.

His specially trained literacy instructor helped Malcolm relate to the literature by engaging in critical thinking.  He learned to make inferences that enabled him to draw conclusions and make predictions about what would happen next.  He began to connect with the characters and feel their emotions and identify their motivations.  Malcolm also learned to monitor his comprehension and stop reading when the video camera inside his head stopped showing movies.

Language therapy was another key to Malcolm’s success.  He needed help with narrative development……in other words, telling his stories to family and friends.   These are the types of stories that we tell many times a day….these are our personal narratives…… and we call it conversation.

His social thinking group was the third critical component of Malcolm’s treatment plan.  He was placed in a group with other third graders.

Led by Tessa, our SLP social thinking specialist, the kids identified expected group behaviors and compared them to unexpected behaviors.  In a group situation, for example, we are expected to keep our shoulders facing the group and to use appropriate eye contact.  We are expected to keep our brain in the group and talk about the topic at hand.  We are expected to ask questions to show we are interested in the other members of the group, to listen to their responses and then to make supportive comments like “that’s cool” or “awesome”.  Then, we are expected to make a related comment about ourselves or segue the conversation to something that is remotely related, at the very least.

These are the rules for conversation.  If we follow these rules, we are appropriate, and we have friends.  If we break these rules, others consider us “weird,” and we get teased or shunned.  We haven’t met ONE kid who wants others to think he is weird.  They all want to do the expected and be accepted, but they just don’t get it.  So it is our job to make the rules explicit, and then practice the rules over and over again.

To help her students read body language and facial expressions, Tessa played cartoons on her lap top.  She turned off the sound and asked the kids to supply the expressions.  When Sylvester, the cat, was standing over Tweety Bird with a hammer raised above his head, did Sylvester want to be friends with Tweety Bird?  Malcolm wasn’t sure.

But, months later, after studying the characters’ faces and discussing their motivations, after making predictions and checking his predictions by watching the next frame of the cartoon, Malcolm started to get it.  He finally started appreciating the humor in cartoons.  That was just the beginning……

We just had a conference with Malcolm’s parents.  Hallelujah!  Malcolm is doing better in school.  His comprehension is improving, and he is starting to write logical papers. He is shining in some subjects such as science.  He was the star of the school play!  He memorized his lines perfectly and executed them with eloquence!

Maybe these are Malcolm’s gifts to share with the world?  Maybe, as he progresses through school, he will choose electives like botany and zoology and become the president of the science club?  Perhaps he will join the drama club and star in school plays? Who knows?  It is possible that Jonas Salk and George Lucas were little Malcolms when they were kids.

Every child has a gift to share with the world. It is our job to help our kids overcome their challenges and uncover those gifts, so they can share them.

If you know a child with autism or any learning difficulty that is interfering with academic development or social interaction, call us at 858.509.1131.  It is never too early or too late to begin.

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