Social Emotional Learning and Autism

Many “social skills” programs focus on teaching a skill or a behavior. The problem with this is that a person with autism may not understand WHY they are being told to use a particular skill. In addition, teaching “social skills” is more about trying to make an autistic person behave like a neurotypical person. This type of treatment is simply teaching people to mask who they really are, which is damaging to his/her mental health. For example, an individual may be told to look at a person; however, that person may not understand WHY we look at or toward a communication partner when speaking and listening. In addition, “making eye contact” may be very uncomfortable or overstimulating for him/her. This needs to be considered when working with autistic individuals so we can help them find another way or let others know that they are engaged and listening.

An autistic person also may not understand how people use their eyes as a form of communication simply by the direction of their gaze and get in trouble for not “paying attention”. We work to help autistic individuals understand WHY people do things such as this, if it is not clear to them, and help them to see the messages they might be missing. We also help them see how they might be sending a nonverbal message to others unintentionally. This provides them with a deeper understanding of everyday social situations. Ultimately, we strive to empower autistic individuals by learning about their strengths and challenges and then learning the language to advocate for themselves so they feel more successful and capable.

Often individuals with autism may exhibit behaviors that are perceived as inappropriate in a social situation. When working with these individuals, our therapy is not about trying to make a person look “normal” according to society. Our focus is on finding out WHY a person reacts or acts in ways that are often viewed as inappropriate and help the individual to effectively communicate their emotions and needs so others will understand them, acknowledge them, and see/hear them.

“Autism isn’t an illness. It’s a different way of being human. […] they are progressing through developmental stages as we all do. To help them, we don’t need to change them or fix them. We need to work to understand them…”

— Prizant, 2015, p. 4

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