Life: It’s Where You Get those Social Skills: Misconceptions of Social Skills and Disability

Hi, readers,

I hope everyone had a wonderful Mother’s Day and enjoyed celebrating with and showing love to all the mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts who all make our lives so wonderful. (Quick shout-out: love you, Mom!) And now, back to the blogosphere.

I don’t know who started it, but there’s a vicious rumor going around that people with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum, but really anybody with a disability, have no social skills, don’t like being around people, and are in general unable to show or reciprocate friendship, love, and respect. The rumor in itself is bad enough, especially when someone has the gall to voice it to the other person’s face. In fact, I heard a lot of that from my “mentor” teachers at my last job–“You have little or no social skills.” And let me tell you: (1) That hurt, and (2) I could say plenty about theirs–such as, they need a refresher course in social skills. However, the rumor gets worse.

It’s laughable when you think about it. I’ve recently stumbled across the Asperger Women’s Association Facebook page, and this morning, I came across one of their links. It’s to another Word Press blog, called Life with Disability, written by a woman who has a learning disability. One of her more recent posts was about social skills, and she wrote that someone once asked her, in all seriousness, “Where did you get your social skills? Were they from an IEP?” The first thing I thought when I read that?

Oh. My. Holy Goodness.

I’m sure you recognize the two inherent fallacies in such a question. The first, of course, is that social skills cannot be taught naturally to people with disabilities. The second is that they must be written up as “goals” or “behavior plans” or IEPs, so that the person with a disability can practice them and be “worked on” by a behavior therapist or other such “expert,” until that person determines that the person with a disability finally has social skills. It makes me want to vomit just writing it.

Besides the two immediate fallacies, there are other problems with this construct as well. First of all, what, exactly, are “social skills?” We treat “social skills” as a set of abilities that are fixed and can be checked off a checklist one at a time as they are learned. However, social skills are not fixed. For example, in America, children with autism are looked upon with suspicion and disapproval because they can’t or don’t make eye contact with other people. They’re seen as rude and disrespectful. But in China or Ghana, that same child would be looked upon as rude and disrespectful if he or she did make eye contact without permission. American parents and teachers expect children to demonstrate “social skills” by smiling and greeting adults when prompted. Again, in other places, it’s considered rude for a child to smile at an adult–smiling in general, especially showing your teeth–can be considered disrespectful or even threatening. Also, isn’t it funny that we prompt children to greet adults when we tell them to, but in other situations, we clearly say, “Never talk to strangers”? Social skills are not unchanging–yet, when it comes to people with disabilities, we behave as if they are, and that to fail at one social skill is to fail at all of them.

Social skills cannot be checked off a checklist. Again, we behave as if they can when we give certain skills as “goals” to people with disabilities. But they cannot. For example, let’s say that an “expert” gives a four-year-old child with autism the goal of being “socially acceptable” by using good table manners, and nine times out of ten, that child does so. But the tenth time, he or she spills something, or makes a mess with food because it’s difficult to hold or cut up. Bang–it’s suddenly like those other nine times flew out the window. The kid didn’t meet the goal and is still not socially acceptable, so that goal remains on the checklist–until when? Until someone else arbitrarily decides it can be removed, that’s when. Meanwhile, the patron at the next restaurant table, who does not have autism or any other disability, splashes guacamole on himself from that messy taco–and nobody bats an eyelash at that.

So now that we know what doesn’t work in terms of teaching social skills, let’s talk about what does. I think you might know where I’m going with this. People without disabilities don’t go to school or out in public with a paper trail of IEPs, IHPs, and goals attached to them. So how do they learn social skills? Right–naturally! Who taught you how to say please and thank you? I’m betting it was Mom, Dad, or another caring relative or friend–whoever you grew up with. Who taught you that we wipe our mouths with napkins, don’t reach across tables, and say “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” when speaking to teachers, employers, or other adults in authority? Right again–you probably learned that at home, and had it supplemented at school. Even if you grew up in a home where fighting, cursing, bad manners, and all kinds of other socially horrible behavior was the norm–and if that is the case, you have my deepest sympathies–you learned those “good” social skills somewhere, and it wasn’t from a packet of paper. Even if you, say, had a counselor who suggested you work on social skills 1, 2, and 3, I’m pretty sure he or she didn’t call a meeting with your guardians and teachers every time you “failed” to speculate about whether you’d ever have social skills at all, and if you needed to be placed in a different environment to learn them.

Yet, this is exactly what we do to people with disabilities! As with so many other areas, when it comes to socializing, we set the bar where WE think it ought to be, and then blame THEM for not reaching our goals–when in fact they probably did, just in a different way. But we can’t accept that, because we’ve been conditioned to think that different is bad. We can’t accept that life naturally teaches anything to people with disabilities, because then we might have to rethink our reams of papers and plans. (IEP, IHP, IFSP–do you see how each of these end in the word Plan? But whose plan is this, anyway? I’ll give you a hint–it’s never the plan of the person it’s aimed at).

Plans are good–but in many areas, particularly the area of social skills, they might be doing a lot of harm. Let’s reexamine what our beliefs about people with disabilities and social skills are saying. And then, let’s dare to teach social skills–by being naturally social, with real people who just happen to have disabilities.


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