More Astute Than Obtuse

More Astute Than Obtuse

I’ve been thinking about social skills lately, and how much they impact our children’s lives.  Sometimes I feel confident that with enough direct instruction and practice even the most socially awkward child can succeed and have healthy relationships.  At other times, though, it seems like the hard work of teaching, learning, and generalizing social skills just isn’t enough.  I can have a child who has mastered basic social skills, but unless someone is willing to get to know her and become friends with her, the skill set seems inadequate and incomplete.

When I see a child who naturally picks up appropriate social skills and relates easily to others, there’s a part of me that feels a bit envious.  My child has to work excruciatingly hard to learn skills that develop effortlessly for others.  On top of that, I think children who struggle in this area need a friend even more than those for whom relationships come easily but often find themselves alone in social settings.  I look at the families who just seem to sail through developing new relationships on a regular basis and I wonder what that would be like.  I want to prompt the parents to be thankful and not take their child’s social skills for granted, but I know if I didn’t have a child with obvious deficits in this area I wouldn’t give a second thought to his social skills, either.


When my son was young, he did not make eye contact.  He didn’t feel the need for it, since he could hear everything just fine without looking at the person who was speaking.  Over time he learned that other people expected him to look them in the eyes, so he worked hard to discipline himself to meet that need.  He went from one extreme to the other during the learning phase, changing from no eye contact to staring unblinkingly at his conversation partner’s eyes.  This was perhaps more unsettling to others than the original lack of eye contact had been, so once again my son worked to make changes in the way he connected with people.

Despite his determination and ongoing efforts to relate with others, my son struggled with the unspoken rules of interpersonal exchange and many viewed him as simply obtuse.  The dictionary defines obtuse as “not quick or alert in perception, feeling or intellect; not sensitive or observant.”   This was his starting point.  Considering how very many discreet skills he needed to learn to improve his overall social skills what he accomplished was truly impressive.  Even so, I continued to observe other children who called my son derogatory names and who avoided his attempts to interact with them.  When his peers did include my son in play, more often than not it was to cast him in the role of monster or bad guy and then they ran from him, screaming.

It is no wonder that some of the children who struggle socially just want to give up or in frustration decide that most other people are not worth relating to anyway.  The rewards are so minimal in comparison to the effort these children exert trying to learn to relate in ways that do not come naturally for them.  With little apparent success they persevere and wish for friends who genuinely like them, and for insight into the baffling hidden curriculum of social exchange.  It seems that everyone else is in on the secrets of how to relate to others while the struggling child works to understand and interpret mysterious and unspoken rules that exclude and elude them.


My son worked with remarkable resiliency to be successful in social interactions.   He became an astute observer as he watched for changes in facial expression and tone of voice the way a scientist studies an experiment.  It seemed as if my son were a stranger in a foreign land, immersed in a language and culture that were unnatural to him.  Gradually and with many bumps along the way, he learned to recognize how others expressed their thoughts and feelings.  My son, who was always caring and sensitive, learned to relate in ways that were more easily recognized by those around him.  He picked up on subtle differences in my facial expressions and would ask if everything was okay.  When I sighed, he would check in with me to see if I was upset about something or perhaps just tired.

My son, and many like him, learn to improve their social skills and overcome their social struggles. There are occasional setbacks and disappointments but they manage to at least get by and develop genuine relationships.  Some who struggle socially will only achieve a modicum of success, while others will become fluent in the language of social skills.  Even for those who appear to be fluent, though, they are like second-language learners who have remarkably mastered the skills necessary to be successful in a foreign culture.

The Real Social Security

It’s hard to avoid, especially when you are a child. You read about it, hear others talk about theirs, and are prompted to write, talk and answer questions about it. What is the subject of this insidious obsession? A best friend. Doesn’t everyone have one? Don’t get me wrong, I think best friends are wonderful. What I have difficulty with is the emphasis expressed to children about the need for one. The question, “Who is your best friend?” assumes that the child has one very special friend. Writing about what you like to do with your best friend is easy – if you actually have one. If you don’t, then the perception can be that something is lacking and you should try to obtain a best friend as soon as possible.

There are many wonderful children’s books describing the shared adventures of best friends. As a child I had the impression that everyone was supposed to have a best friend and if you didn’t, something was wrong with you. I felt the pressure to latch on to somebody so that I could have a ready answer when asked who my best friend was. Having a “best friend” was my goal, and I wasn’t particularly discerning in my selections.

In kindergarten, my best friend was Mike because he and I shared the same birthday and he gave me some pennies one time. In first grade, my best friend was Darryl, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who held my hand under the table during music class and showed me how his eyes crossed when he took his glasses off. I thought that was so cool! After first grade Darryl’s family moved away so I had to find a new best friend and some other lucky person got to see Darryl’s crossed eyes.

There was an unspoken pressure to find a best friend replacement whenever the previous relationship cooled for any reason. By late elementary school, everyone understood that if you had a best friend you would have a seat saved for you even if you and your best buddy weren’t next to each other in line. There would be a spot reserved for you as your best friend placed a hand on the chair beside her and informed any would-be interlopers that the seat was saved. Before the teacher finished saying “Find a partner” for an activity, you and your best friend already knew you would pair up together. No one else even bothered asking you to be a partner since everyone understood that you would be with your best friend. You and your number one pal never had to wonder who you would eat lunch with or talk to at recess. Having a best friend was a relational social security that offered the assurance you would always have someone around.

For a child who struggles socially, making any friends let alone a best friend can be difficult. It’s complicated, because most of us have no idea how to teach our kids social skills that come naturally for most people. When you see your child try unsuccessfully to join a group or make a new friend, it is heartbreaking. How much should you try and intervene? You can’t make friends for your child, but sometimes your child doesn’t seem to be able to make a new friend by herself. Unless you’ve held a lonely child in your arms, knowing how badly he wants to have a friend but isn’t experiencing successful relationships it is hard to understand just how devastating it can be for that child and his parent. I’m afraid that some of that need for social security through having a best friend can follow us into adulthood. For example, my daughter got to know a girl in our homeschool support group and the two of them really hit it off. They had a lot in common and enjoyed being with each other. The new friend’s mother had been college roommates with another homeschool mom in the group, and those two mothers had already decided that their daughters would be best friends. My daughter watched as the other two girls were shuttled to each other’s houses for play dates and signed up for classes together at the local parks and recreation programs without a backward glance. These moms were not being deliberately unkind or exclusive. They were trying to give their daughters the kind of social security they had valued when they were growing up. There were quite a few moms in my homeschool support group who would not sign their children up for sports or other group activities unless their child’s best friend would be in the same group. The child with a best friend does not have to make an effort to include another child, because socially they are set. The child without a buddy in the group is more motivated to find another child who is at loose ends socially.

I tried to teach my children to look around and notice who might need a friend, and make an effort to include them. I was no doubt more sensitive to this than most, because I was a mother of one of the socially isolated children. Can you imagine the depth of sadness a parent feels when they are the only friend their child has? Truly, a good friend is an incredible blessing.

I get to know quite a few moms during my speaking engagements and my speech therapy practice. I’ve met some incredible women who agonize over their children’s lack of good relationships. Some children act in atypical ways because of their challenges such as autism or attention deficit disorder. Their moms work hard to teach them social skills, but their children continue to struggle and after awhile they are no longer invited to group social events because they are “different” and their behaviors make others uncomfortable. Now, in addition to isolated children there are increasingly isolated mothers.

As much as I’d like to believe it is the rare exception when an adult loses friendships because of her child, I know from personal experience that it happens frequently. Moms of special needs children need extra support, but often end up with less support because of their child’s differences that set him apart in a negative way. It’s a cycle that deserves to be interrupted.

This whole “best friend” situation can perpetuate the exclusion of those without one particular best friend. Maybe we could teach our children that even if they have a best friend they can still be friends with others and include them. Adults, even if your social needs are adequately met, I can guarantee you that there is someone in your life who longs to experience even a little of the camaraderie you share with your best friends. You and your child may not feel the need to add another friend to your life, but please look around anyway because someone undoubtedly needs your friendship. Can you share your social security with someone in need? If so, you just might change their lives – and teach your child how to love like Christ does along the way.

Say What?

I love talking with my son, Josh. He has such interesting perspectives and the way he verbally expresses himself gives me insight into how he thinks and processes information. When he was young, Josh had some difficulty remembering words so he would use descriptions to get his point across. He once described his ankle as “you know, that part that’s like the wrist of your leg”. He tended to use vague words such as “thing” and “that” rather than specific word labels. Despite the circumlocutions, I could always tell what Josh was talking about. Since Josh struggled to recognize many nonverbal signals and had to be taught how to use appropriate body language when he interacted, I could never take it for granted that Josh would just pick up on social cues and be able to express himself adequately. He could learn how to interact with other people, but he had to be taught specific discrete skills for social interactions. For my daughters, social skills came naturally and they just seemed to intuitively know how to relate to others. For Josh, it was like being in a foreign land where everyone else seemed to know the language but he struggled to learn basic communication and was vulnerable to being frequently misunderstood. I did speech therapy with Josh to work on conversational turn-taking, topic maintenance, and nonverbal ways to let a listener know he was interested. Unfortunately, Josh often was not interested in what others wanted to talk about, so then I had to teach him about being polite and a good friend by sometimes letting someone else take the conversational lead. Once Josh had some of the basic skills for social interaction and was able to express himself more effectively, he continued to practice and fine tune his communication exchanges. I noticed that Josh often did not respond when given a compliment. Outside of the family, Josh didn’t get many positive comments so he didn’t really know how to respond when it happened. I talked to Josh about possible responses and we role-played several situations together. After our practice session I reminded Josh that he had lots of strengths worthy of compliments so it was good that he was learning how to respond to them. Josh informed me that “Vanity was never my strongest weakness.” Say what? After some probing (they don’t call me the Momster for nothing) I was able to help Josh expand his message so that I could understand what he meant. His intention was to indicate that although he was aware that he had many significant challenges, being vain was not one of them. Therefore, he needed some help in learning how to respond to compliments. Even today, Josh comes up with some unique responses that catch me by surprise. Just this morning our dogs were playing and one of them ran over and stood next to me. I said, “Look, Josh, she’s on base.” After a brief pause, Josh jokingly said, “Then I’ll be lead guitar.” Say what? Translation: “base” sounds like “bass” as in a type of guitar. What’s a band without both bass and lead guitars? Josh was making a play on words, and at least now he understands what I say and makes a deliberate choice to joke and say funny things.

What’s So Bad About Yelling?

Before I became a parent, I determined that I would not be a yeller. I would talk calmly to my children, who of course would hang on my every word as I politely explained what I wanted from them. They would comply with my requests, and we would ultimately end up on the cover of a homeschooling magazine. Some of this actually came true. I did become a parent! As for the rest, let’s just say I’m still a work in progress. I used to think I was a very patient person. As a speech/language pathologist, I worked with others’ children and people remarked about how patient I was with them. I truly believed they were right about me, until I had children of my own and they were around for longer than 30 – 60 minute therapy sessions once or twice a week. I was forced to see that I was really pretty impatient a good deal of the time. On top of that unfortunate revelation I found out that I was quite capable of being a yeller, especially when I felt frustrated. Is yelling such a big deal? The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is just not true. Words can hurt, and sometimes have lasting results. Once in frustration I yelled at my son, “What’s wrong with you?” and that was after he had already been diagnosed with ADHD, auditory processing, and sensory processing difficulties. He struggled every single day, and my yelling at him was insensitive, hurtful, and revealed much more about what was wrong with me. I asked my son for forgiveness, and he willingly gave it and showered me with grace. Even though my boy was able to move past the incident, I was scarred by my own words and knew I needed to alter my behavior. My yelling forced me to see some ugly things about myself that were hard to acknowledge but needed to change. In addition to the negative emotional effects it sometimes causes, yelling really isn’t effective as a child training technique. Children who are frequently yelled at learn to gauge the seriousness of the yeller and when they will actually have to comply with requests. It’s as if they know they don’t have to worry about taking action until a certain decibel level is reached. You may think yelling will help you blow off steam, but it’s bad for your voice and ultimately doesn’t make you less frustrated or more effective with your children. If anything it has the opposite effect, much the way an immunization helps build up resistance by introducing a small amount of something undesirable into the body so it will build up immunity against stronger versions. Children who are yelled at often build up a resistance to your loud voice and they tune it out until it’s clear you mean business. A parent who is yelling empty threats with no consistent follow-through inadvertently teaches children that they can safely ignore what is being said. This leads to further parental frustration and the yelling cycle is perpetuated. I have seen more than one movie where the most frightening “bad guy” speaks in a soft, controlled voice. It’s scary because you know that he means what he says and will follow through with any promised action. He is in control of himself and the situation, and he doesn’t need to raise his voice or repeat himself to make his intentions known. Now I’m not trying to frighten my children into obedience, but neither do I want to overpower them with my own lack of self control as I screech commands at them. I don’t want to yell to get my children’s attention, and I don’t want my children to think they only have to listen when Mom is about to blow. Some people find that they are less likely to yell when they have spent time in God’s word and in prayer. Others know they need to exercise to release tension, or have some time with friends to recharge a bit. I had a hard time eliminating my yelling responses. I spent a lot of time in prayer. I did not want to continue to be a yeller, yet I often felt like screaming. So I read the Bible. I journaled. I cried and prayed some more. I recognized that I needed to treat my children with respect, even when they were at their most challenging. The yelling problem was about me, not them. In order to be the person God wanted me to be I needed His help to persist in fighting my impulses to yell. I’d like to say that at some point I reached a level of maturity and self-control and never yelled at my children again. But that would be a lie. I have had to ask for forgiveness from each of my children many times. Talk about humbling! I don’t yell much these days, but I know I’m still capable of it. I’m not yet the person I someday hope to be, but I am taking steps forward and pushing on by the grace of God. I hope this is an encouragement to all my fellow yellers. You are not alone, and change is possible.

Homeschool Flashback #1

This was an assignment Josh did for a homeschool writing class. In addition to the ADHD, auditory processing, and sensory processing issues, Josh struggled with social nuances. Some of Josh’s struggles he understood and could identify. Other symptoms left all of us baffled, even Josh. I’m glad that even at this young age Josh knew he was smart and strong, so some of my truth messages were getting through to him in the midst of his challenges. It’s interesting to me that “I know karate” made the positives and the negatives list. Knowing karate was good for Josh, in that it provided an outlet for his excess energy and helped him develop coordination and self defense skills. It also allowed him to be part of a group sport, but one that was individualized so he could progress at his own pace. Knowing karate was a negative for Josh, because as soon as other kids found out he was training in martial arts they asked if he was a black belt and then wanted to take him on. Josh was never aggressive, so demonstrating his karate skills outside of class was not appealing to him. One of the first things most boys do in social settings is talk about their favorite sports teams and the sports they participate in. Josh was more interested in drawing and creating things than in sports, so he didn’t have much to talk about other than that he knew karate. This led to the inevitable challenges to prove his skills, which Josh did only when he absolutely had to for self defense. Even then, he ended the confrontation as soon as he could. This homeschool flashback provides a snapshot of a young boy’s emerging self perception. Teaching him at home gave me the opportunity to help him develop a balanced view of himself, which is revealed by this writing assignment as he recognizes some of his strengths despite huge challenges. By the time Josh reached adulthood, he had a mental list of positive and negative things about himself that was accurate and realistic.

Homeschoolers Meeting People

As homeschoolers, it’s important to make a good impression so people can see how wonderful we homeschoolers are. Homeschoolers have long been the subject of speculation about their social skills, a concern that I personally believe is unwarranted. After all, we meet people all the time. Sometimes we even make a very positive impression.
I’m one of those moms who believes in teaching children how to think and make choices for themselves from a young age. My goal is to train them up into independent adults, capable of critical thinking and able to explain their convictions and not just parrot my beliefs. To work toward this goal you have to start small, by allowing children to make decisions in non-essential areas while the stakes are low. One such area for me was to allow my children to choose their own outfits for the day. My daughters carefully made their selections and chose outfits that generally matched. My son, who is both extremely artistic and colorblind, chose outfits that would look right at home if he were a very young circus clown performing in the center ring. When we ventured out into the community, we appeared, if not fun, at least interesting enough to chat with and get to know a little. When some people found out we were homeschoolers I could see the “Aha!” moment as if that explained the wild outfits. For others, the fact that my children didn’t feel pressured to conform to others’ ideas about what to wear seemed cool and made them a little envious of our freedom. Either way, it was a good conversation starter.
Here is another guaranteed way for you homeschool moms to either meet new people or run into people you haven’t seen for awhile. Trust me, this works for me every time. First of all, tell yourself that you will get up extra early and run to the store to get a few items before the store is crowded. Assure yourself that since no one else will be there, and you are only ducking in and out quickly, you really don’t need to take your shower before you go. In fact, since you will be showering after you get back from the store, it doesn’t make sense to put on makeup because you will just have to reapply it later and that wouldn’t be using your time effectively. After all, you are going early to be strategic like the efficiency machine that you are. So just run a hairbrush through your hair and throw on your sweatpants and an old shirt, and go conquer the first task on your list for the day. Isn’t it great to be getting a head start on your day? Avoid looking in the rear view mirror as you remind yourself that there is NO WAY you will be seeing anyone you know this early. It helps to repeat this to yourself several times. Who else would be crazy enough to go to the store at this hour? No doubt the store will be practically deserted. Whenever you try this strategy, you will either meet someone who sees in you a kind person willing to help them, someone who assumes you are a morning person looking for someone like-minded to chat with, or (best of all?) someone you have not seen for months. This last person is usually someone who seems a bit skeptical of the whole homeschooling thing, and no matter if you see him or her first and try to hide behind a display, you will be spotted. It’s like a law or something. When you have run out of excuses to babble in a vain attempt to explain away your unusual appearance, you can catch up with your acquaintance. Just remember to emphasize that this is your unusual appearance and not at all what your typical daily self looks like. Use words like “exception”, and “atypical”.
Another option is to adopt my other strategy and just relax. In my case, I am now middle-aged and peoples’ expectations for my appearance no longer pressure me. I wasn’t a beauty when I was younger and I’m certainly not getting better with age. When I have these unexpected meetings I try to relax and enjoy the moment. God forbid that I should miss the opportunity to talk to another person because I am worried about being perceived as a weird homeschooler. Someone may still draw that conclusion after talking with me, but it won’t be because I held back.

Facial Recognition and Social Implications

Most of us have times when it’s hard to recall someone’s name, although we recognize the face. We readily admit, “I’m terrible with names” as a disclaimer when we first meet someone so he won’t be offended in the future if his name slips out of our grasp. This difficulty with name recall is both common and understandable. Unless an individual’s name makes it from our working memory into our long term memory, and pretty quickly, we are not likely to remember it in the future. For most of us, it is easier to recall the visual information and appearance of another person’s face than the auditory information of a name. Sometimes we recognize someone but can’t remember the context in which we met them. Church? Community activity? Friend of a friend? Because this is such a common experience, most people are pretty forgiving if we’ve forgotten the name but at least show recognition that we have met before. Often, there is mutual forgetfulness and the other person does not remember our names, either. No harm done.
My son, Josh, has significant working memory challenges. I realized over time that my son not only was unable to recall names, neither could he readily recall faces. He had no difficulty recognizing those of us he interacted with on a regular basis, but for those he saw infrequently he honestly had no memory or context for knowing them. It would be unsettling for him when virtual strangers (to his mind) would call him by name and initiate a conversation. Josh has never been good at faking anything, so he would genuinely ask, “Do I know you?” or “I’m sorry, but have we met?” Unfortunately, this attempt to be polite and seek clarification had negative social implications. People naturally feel hurt when others don’t remember them, especially people whom they remember quite clearly and have shared past experiences. I remember a mother of one of my daughter’s friends coming up to me and telling me that Josh asked who she was and she told him “I’ve only known you for YEARS.” It was true, but months would go by in between each brief contact and Josh never transferred the information to his long-term memory so each contact was starting fresh – for him. If I told Josh who people were and when he had seen them before, it sometimes jogged a vague memory for him.
There is a name for this “face blindness”, and the term is “prosopagnosia”. In severe cases, individuals have difficulty recognizing their own family members, friends, and even themselves. Many people with autism, PDD, and Asperger Syndrome experience prosopagnosia. I guess Josh had a fairly mild version, and I wondered if what registered in his mind’s eye was like a snapshot of faces, rather than the more dynamic version of faces changing to reflect a variety of emotions. Since Josh used to have difficulty recognizing different emotions expressed on faces, I thought maybe he only had one still picture in his mind and if it didn’t match what he saw there was no recall. I don’t know for sure, and Josh has improved over the years. It’s too bad that there’s not facial recognition software we could install in our brains to help us make the connections. I have worked with many children with autism who focus on part of something rather than seeing the whole. If this happens when a child looks at a face, he may see just the nose, or only the mouth, and not how those parts comprise a face. I have had children stare at an object I’ve held in front of my face, without recognizing that there was a person holding the object. If a face is viewed as individual component parts without seeing the whole, that face is not likely to be recognized in the future.
For our verbal children with the language skills to express themselves, we can teach them strategies to ease the social tension. Having someone admit “I know lots of people have trouble remembering names, but I even have trouble remembering faces sometimes” may prepare others in advance so they won’t be offended or surprised when they have to reintroduce themselves. For our nonverbal or less verbal children, we can advocate for them by explaining the challenges of prosopagnosia and reassure others that it is not a personal slight when our children don’t acknowledge them with recognition. My hope is that when we explain that there is a neurological glitch, others will be more flexible and accepting and won’t misinterpret our struggling learner’s behaviors in a negative way.

I’m weird, you’re weird, we’re all weird now!

***Today’s blog post is by a guest blogger. My daughter, Beth, is a special education major and shares her experience with a young friend who has Asperger Syndrome.***

I am notorious at reading too deeply into simple statements, but this struck me as profound.

I was baby-sitting for a near and dear family for me. Upon returning from a short bike ride to drop off the younger of two brothers to soccer practice, the older brother and I had an extremely brief conversation. It went something like this:

M: *mumbles something about himself being a “stupid-dumb head”*
Beth: Hey, I don’t like the sounds of that. You are not a stupid-dumb head!
M: I know, sometimes I say things like that.
Beth: Well, I don’t like those words. They aren’t true. And I bet your mom doesn’t like them either.
M: She doesn’t mind.
Beth: If I mentioned to her that you said that, would she be sad?
M: Don’t mention it to her, okay? It doesn’t mean anything. You don’t have to mention it.
Beth: I just don’t want you to say those things about yourself. I like your head. I want you to like your head too!
M: Okay… I’m just weird.
Beth: Oh?
M: Yeah. I’m weird. You’re weird too. Everyone is weird!
Beth: Yeah, but you know what? Being weird rocks. Let’s scream it.. ready? 1, 2, 3-

What makes this profound is my buddy in this story has Asperger’s syndrome. He is a quirky boy, and fitting in isn’t always easy. However, strides have been made, society has come a long way. Self-confidence and self-love is a rare find in individuals such as these, and it warms my heart to know that these kinds of children can proudly scream “Being weird rocks!” in place of being a “stupid-dumb head.” Having a difference can be isolating, and it’s encouraging to know that not only can people cope with this, they can be proud of their differences too.

We still have so far to go, though. However, I do think it’s important to celebrate these small steps, for they are significant.

Socialization for ADD/Aspergers/Autistic kids

We just got back from the Homeschooling conference in Indianapolis, where HUMom presented a workshop entitled “When Socialization <span style=”font-style: italic;”>IS</span> an Issue.”  Kids with ADD, Aspergers, Autism, learning disabilities or just plain quirkiness often have difficulties relating to others on a social level.  This can cause tremendous stress on the family and frustration to the parents as well as the kids.

HUMom suggested many ideas for helping to train social skills, such as role playing, identification of non-verbal communication, recognizing emotional cues, teaching through literature, rehearsal, using photos & videos to study social situations, games that work on social skills (Moods, Express Yourself, the Ungame, etc.) and social stories written together by parent &amp; child.  It was well received and there were many questions and good discussion afterwards.

Has anyone else discovered effective ways of training social skills?