March 22, 2013

Our Social Responsibility

The following is written by Peggy Hovatter, a Positive Behavior Support Trainer for the West Virginia Autism Training Center. Peggy provides a discussion on developing social clubs for individuals living on the autism spectrum.

Human social behavior is nothing short of incredible. We are capable of transmitting an amazing amount of information with relatively subtle signals. By assessing just how often and how complexly we use social skills to navigate through our world, we bring to light behaviors that have become second nature to us. During your next visit to the grocery store, church or local restaurant objectively observe yourself and others in the constant give and take of social behavior, and take note of the subtle cues, gestures, expressions, vocal patterns, and indicators used in those exchanges.

Taking these skills for granted is easy to do.

The importance of social exchange for our wellbeing is immeasurable. We crave sharing our space and ideas with our friends or others we encounter in life. Social interaction leads to some of the most meaningful human experiences: friendship, courtship, marriage, laughter, politics, philosophy, parties, etc. Because the value of human exchange is so great, we are forced to assess what adverse effects may occur if socialization is compromised.
Socialization is considered to be the primary deficit in those with autism spectrum disorders. Shouldn’t it then carry equal importance with regard to skill building as do academic and daily living?  More and more, social goals and objectives are being included in Individualized Education Plans (IEP),  Individualized Habilitation Plans (IHP) and Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSP).  How wonderful that we understand social growth as an integral puzzle piece of a life of quality!  Our challenge now is to implement techniques that have meaningful outcomes.

Use of a “club” format was implemented seven years ago whose birth was a result of the Family Focus Positive Behavior Support Program. I was meeting intelligent, fun-loving, humorous adolescents and teenagers (diagnosed with Asperger’s/High Functioning Autism) who remained isolated when it came to friendships.  Upon further investigation, I realized that they misunderstood interactions from typical peers and were not given the opportunity to feel one of the most important intrinsic social rewards in human nature: “belonging”.  Feeling that they were a part of something…anything…relating to others their own age.  A few years ago, realizing that the younger kids had similar needs, another club was formed for elementary school aged students.

My mission was identified. Next step was how to provide activities that would be fun and informative? There are many resources available that were developed specifically for people with autism. Authors off the top of my head include Judith Coucouvanis, Michelle Winner, Cindy Schneider, Andrew Nelson, Steve Guttstein, Brenda Smith Myles and Pamela Wolfberg to name a few. A favorite activity among the kids is “Spotlight Focus” (Nelson’s book) that addresses facial expressions with matching comments:

As my research continued, I realized that any resource that addresses self-esteem, team building and just plain FUN would match the club format perfectly.  Games that involved idioms became a consistent part of our schedule and continue to be enjoyed.  New ideas have a way of popping up if you’re in the “social mindset”. I found some three-part sequence cards online and developed an activity that involved listening and attending. 

While browsing at a yard sale one weekend, I saw a ream of cardboard strips from a hardware store that showed the different shades of paint.  Each strip had the same color from light to darker.  Aha!  Idea! Let’s show the different levels of emotions via lighter to darker colors and increase understanding through visual supports!  The following activity was developed: The group divided into two teams and were given a crayon and a piece of paper with a rectangle divided into four sections.  The “Happy” team had to think of four varying levels of happy and identify each level with a word.  As the emotion increased in intensity, the color got darker.  The “Happy” team came up with pleased, happy, thrilled and ecstatic .  The “Mad” team did the same with their emotion.  The following is a video clip of the “Mad” team reporting out after group discussion:


Activities that require turn taking and working together can address important social skills.  In the activity “Build A City”, each child is given a different colored marker.  There is a list of what each color is assigned to draw.  For example, the green marker will draw trees and shrubs, the black marker will draw roads and parking lots, etc.  Conversation between participants begins to flow quite naturally as they begin to draw their city.

Conversation starters and topics through visual support can be as simple as a bingo game. Here's one with a twist! Look carefully at the card below. There are many different pictures of the same generic item, such as Christmas trees, wreaths, candy canes, snowmen etc. Participants have to listen carefully to the item that is described such as “A Christmas tree with red diagonal stripes” as opposed to “A Christmas tree made out of puzzle pieces”.

Practically every person enjoys acting and performing.  Here’s some role playing ideas that directly relate to social situations for people with autism:

1. You are talking to someone about ideas for a science project.  They look away, roll their eyes and start to play with their pencil.
2. You enter class and see your friend looking at this spelling test.  He looks upset. When he sees you coming, he quickly turns the test paper over.

3. You get on the bus and sit with a friend.  She is smiling and looking at you.

4. You get on the bus and sit with someone.  They turn away and cross their arms, looking mad.

In summary, a club is a group of people with similar interests who meet regularly to enjoy one another and share commonalities.  Members are relaxed and accepted.  Members feel that they ‘belong’.  Relationships are formed, friends are made.  The knowledge that you’re part of a group sustains you during other times of your life.  
It’s a great feeling!