Posts tagged ‘social skills’
Not that I would ever be a “typical” mother, but I am most definitely not one given this child of mine. While the days of being the only mother at the playground actually up on the equipment with the kids are long gone, I still do some version of this now. Often on these lovely fall days, while the neighborhood moms are hanging out in someone’s front yard, I am facilitating C’s interactions. “He’s doing fine,” I hear on many occasions. “They’ll work things out.”
And there it is: the grand difference between us – the idea that the kids will work it out. Actually, mine won’t. Yours will – they’ll bicker and fight and be best friends again five minutes later. C, however, will often alienate kids because his negotiating, problem-solving, and compromising skills are significantly less developed than the kids around him. An argument over a ball can have life-altering consequences for C because your child won’t want to be friends with him after it’s over. Or C will lose it and start crying, and the other children will stare and snicker at his socially “inappropriate” behavior. And they don’t forget. No matter how many times you tell me that all kids do that, you simply don’t understand that my kid does it times ten. And the all kids you are talking about are generally half C’s age.
This is where I get angry. Because if C lived his life in a wheelchair, you would do everything you could to make sure he is fairly included in every activity. But because his disability – and yes, in this area I have now painfully come to conclude that for C it is a disability in many ways - is invisible, no matter how much you talk to your kids about accepting his differences, they still don’t want to be around him a lot of the time. Friends who couldn’t get enough of him months ago can now hardly be civil to him. And he doesn’t understand why.
Then I feel guilty for being angry. Because you have in fact talked to your children about accepting C’s differences. You have talked to them about being kind to him no matter what. Your kids are nice kids. What I’m asking of your kids is often more than I can do myself; I get just as annoyed with C as your kids do. He doesn’t back down, he won’t drop an argument, and he won’t give you your space when you ask for it. I, like no one else, understand how frustrating it can be to be friends with C, despite his endless kindness, thoughtfulness, and genuine fondness for simply everyone he encounters. You have to work really, really hard to be friends with C, and most kids just aren’t capable of that level of effort.
Then I get angry all over again, because C is a kid who will play with anyone and include everyone. The same can’t be said for the rest of the world, and definitely not for the rest of the neighborhood. So I soldier on, facilitating interactions and trying my best to help the other kids relate to my own while at the same time trying to teach C how to navigate the social waters of life.
One Mom summed it up by saying that we are trying to teach our kids tolerance. And while I agree with that sentiment, I’m not sure that I agree that any of us are having any real success.
After a mere two weeks and one day, we pulled C from his school. We had been contemplating it since he started at this school last year, but we were pleasantly surprised when he had a pretty good year in third grade. We knew things would change as he went along, and we expected that around sixth grade, his school situation would likely have to change. Sadly, we only made it to fourth.
Even more sad is that we are pulling him mostly because of what goes on during a mere 35 minutes of his day. 35 minutes in which the public school system (yes the “system” - I don’t for one minute think this problem is unique to C’s school) has completely and utterly failed this child.
It all started with lunch. I walked in only to see him sitting all alone at a table for 20 while every other table was completely full. C’s sometimes utter aloneness in a sea of children is often too much for me to bear. Part of his IEP includes having an adult help facilitate conversations between C and other children during situations like these. He wasn’t alone because he wanted to be; he was alone because it didn’t occur to him to ask someone to join him. Then to hear C chastised by an adult for not inviting someone to sit with him, well, that was about the end of the rope for me. I figured if the people working with him don’t get it by now, perhaps they never will, and I’m not about to wait around to find out.
Then it got worse. Far worse. He went out for recess, and with 130 kids on the playground and two aides, what I didn’t expect to happen this soon almost did. I saw it all from afar as I sat in the parking lot watching, tears streaming down my face. I watched C crying and arguing because he got called “out” of a kickball game I don’t think he was even being included in to begin with. Before I knew it, he was surrounded by several very large kids who were yelling at him and threatening him. He was, in my opinion, within seconds of getting punched in the face by a kid so big I thought he was an adult. Thankfully the situation defused itself, but not before it all happened a second time.
There was no adult within 100 yards of C, and certainly no one was watching him. I know this because I was watching them not watching him. Oh, I understand there are a lot of kids to watch out there, but he is one that they are supposed to be keeping a special eye on simply because he is so incredibly vulnerable, and his social skills – in an unfacilitated situation such as this one - are so undeveloped.
The near violence at recess was the push off the edge that convinced me his experience at this school was over. Upon later discussion with C, it became clear he didn’t even realize how dangerous the situation was – which shows me he’s even more vulnerable than I thought.
So he’s set to start a new school on Tuesday, one where we don’t expect perfection, but one that seems to not only celebrate kids in all their forms, but also seems to teach the kids to celebrate other kids in all their forms. It is with heavy heart that we leave a teacher we loved and the traditional public school system – which we have believed in so strongly for so long. It makes me sad that the public school system in general seems to have such a difficult time helping the very children who perhaps need it the most.
Today is the first day of school. I’ve been waiting for it since school adjourned two months ago. Not only is there not much to do around here in the summer – it’s too hot for anything but swimming, which we do daily – but for an only child with few friends, summer is long for both him and me.
Yet this morning, I woke early - as I always do on the first day of school - filled with low-grade anxiety about the upcoming year. Every year I think it will get easier, and every year I am wrong. There are so many things to worry about, and I can worry with the best. My concerns are admittedly sometimes unfounded, but most of the time there’s a ring of reality and truth to them.
This year, for the first time, I am worried about academics. Hyperlexic children tend to start struggling academically around this fourth grade year, and I saw glimmers of that struggle at the end of third grade. Word problems become more complex, reading becomes more of a subjective experience as plots thicken and subtleties in text become lost to the child, and writing is expected to be far more sophisticated.
But there’s more, there’s always more. The academic issues don’t create the knot in my stomach the way the other things do. Things like having 31 kids in C’s class, none of whom are, at first glance, part of C’s small support system. Then there’s the fact that he really doesn’t want to go to school any longer; the excitement of school in general seems to have worn off, and we have many years left to go. Finally, there’s this little thing about social skills.
Oh, how I have grown to hate those two little words. Long fuming at the school district for putting my kid in a “friendship skills” class when the little tyrants who are so mean to him are not, I wonder what he’s really learning about social skills at school. Given that C’s two best friends are a frienemy - who is as mean to him as often as he is nice – and another child with Asperger’s, I hardly think he’s picking up much in the way of useful social skills. Neither boy is a particularly good role model for C, but friends they are, and friends he needs.
Sometimes I think if I had a brain cell left in my head I’d yank him right out of the public system and homeschool him. However, his isolation would then become more problematic as opportunities to interact with other children would grow less and less. He craves social interaction like I crave chocolate, and I imagine by the end of a school day at home both he and I might run screaming into the woods.
So off I go again, exploring alternatives: online schools, charter schools, and private schools, in the search for the place that best suits him. And my biggest worry on this day is that I will never, ever find that place for him.
Lately I’ve been trying to give C a little more independence. Even though he looks (and often acts) five, he is in fact nine years old, and he’s been telling us exactly how he feels about his 7:45 bedtime (it’s for babies, even though he needs his 11 hours of sleep desperately), his booster seat (also for babies, but he’s not even 50 pounds yet and is a foot shorter than most of his peers), and anything else he feels is not deserving of his nine-year old status.
So as I watched him round the corner into our small town library to return some books while I waited in the car, I thought it might be time to revisit the subject of “stranger danger” and how C would handle an approach from a stranger without me by his side. We’ve had the conversation before (see here), with minimal success.
“C,” I asked upon his return, “what would you do, if after you got around the corner where you couldn’t see Mommy anymore, a man came up to you and asked you to help him find his puppy?”
“Oh, I’d help him, that would be nice,” C said without missing a beat.
I did my best to explain why he should never do that and what he should do instead, complete with running, screaming, and kicking if he had to.
“Kicking?” he asked, shocked. “Wouldn’t I get arrested?”
I once again explained that he should do whatever he needed to do to get away from someone offering him candy, asking to help find a lost puppy, or to get in their car. He seemed perplexed. I asked the question again.
“I would run,” he said, “as fast as I could to your car, and ask you for a piece of paper and a pencil so I could put up a ‘lost’ poster on the tree.”
Every day I walk a tightrope. Sometimes I fall off on one side; sometimes the other. I’m afraid I fall off more on one side than I should, and have visions of C, all grown up, sitting in a therapist’s office, talking about his Mother (definitely “Mother” with a capital “M” in this scenario). Yet the other scenario is perhaps even worse: C all grown up, wondering why I didn’t do anything to help him learn what he needed to know.
So nearly every day, on the drive home from school, I listen to C’s stories of interactions he had with other kids (and am thankful he is able to tell me about them, fragmented as they sometimes are). I gently, nicely try to guide him toward learning how to navigate this mostly neuro-typical world in which we live. C needs to know that when he continues to actively befriend what I call a “frienemy,” he does something very kind but also sends the boy a message that he will tolerate the taunting and torment that occurs daily and is coupled with confusing “let’s be friends” messages. C also must learn he shouldn’t stare out the window at the neighbors and that perhaps everyone that walks down our street isn’t interested in seeing all 103 of his Mario trading cards.
Somehow natural consequences, arguably the best teaching tools, don’t always sink in completely and clearly. They don’t transfer to the next similar situation. There is little generalization between events. So I try to explain it to him. I feel as though I’m acting as C’s navigator in the ways of this admittedly crazy world we call social skills, but my mind tickles with the possibility that the message comes across as something altogether different. I worry that explaining certain – what I used to call – “universal truths” might sound as though there is an underlying critique of C and his ways, and I never, ever want to send him the message that the way he is wrong. He couldn’t be more right.
So what’s a parent to do? I suppose the only thing she can do – tread lightly, Mother, tread lightly.
C has a friend. A best friend. A boy who shares his fanatical interests in silly noises and Mario. They talk on the phone endlessly, trade houses for playdates, and send each other notes home in their school folders. I’m so happy I could cry. It’s wonderful, really, that C finally has a real friend, and when he talks, it’s all “T” all the time.
Yet with this grand first friendship unfortunately comes a grand drawback. Before C came along, T was inseparable with “R” for many years. Now R is on the outs. Worse, R has an autism diagnosis. Worst, C has never excluded anyone from anything. Until now.
C and T are doing the usual when three’s a crowd; they are ganging up against the third. Yes, you heard right, my own sweet special needs boy is participating in the unhappiness of another special needs child. It’s not all the time as there are times at school when the three interact nicely together, but R has clearly been replaced in T’s world. C doesn’t know R has autism, and C doesn’t know he himself has autism. What C knows, I believe, is that for the first time ever, he has a best friend, and it feels good. I can’t begrudge him that.
I suppose most parents would either ignore the behavior or talk generally with their child about being kind to everyone, and the behavior would continue or it would not. Neither of those options work for me. Given my natural protectiveness of children with special needs, I’m not sure which is more painful to me: that this particular child is being hurt or that it’s my child who is partly responsible for the hurting. I simply can’t just ignore the behavior, no matter how much I’d like to say this behavior is a natural part of growing up. C has been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior far too much to simply let it go when it comes from him. And talking generally with C about being kind is never going to sink in to the point he realizes I’m talking about how he treats R.
So I had to go for something more dramatic, something C would not confuse or only partially hear. I pretty much read him the riot act, complete with telling C he wouldn’t be allowed to play with T on the weekends anymore if the two of them couldn’t figure out a way to be kind to R. I reminded C that he too had been left out of groups and how upset he was by it.
What I realized, unfortunately too late, is that this approach didn’t work either. It became painfully obvious, after a particularly unproductive, mostly one-sided conversation, that I had blown it completely. C had no real idea what I was talking about. I figured on some level he knew he was being unkind, but he really didn’t. It simply did not occur to C that R was hurt. And that is what broke my heart most of all.
I was reading a book the other day that weighed the pros and cons of integrated classrooms against self-contained classrooms for kids with an autism or Asperger’s diagnosis. The point that intrigued me the most (and one I hadn’t considered) was that in a self-contained classroom, remedial social skills training is part of the curriculum.
C has never been a candidate for a self-contained classroom, but reading the book made me wonder why remedial social skills aren’t a part of the general curriculum for all children. Kindergarten certainly seems to be all about social skills, and while each teacher C has had since has done a wonderful job of creating community in the classroom, I watch those lessons not carry to the very places C struggles: the playground, the lunchroom, and standing in line. Truth be told? It’s the other kids’ response to C that bothers me the most. He may miss some social cues, but darned if he isn’t putting forth the effort. What happened to a grade of “A” for that?
To argue that school is only about academics is crazy; studies show that pro-social skills in 3rd grade are a greater predictor of academic success in 8th grade than 3rd grade test scores. Yet it seems that the social skills training is mostly directed at the special needs kids. Friendship groups and social skills groups comprised only of kids with social skills challenges doesn’t teach our kids anything about interaction with their typical peers.
We’ve been fighting this issue of social skills groups for kids with autism at every school C has attended, and I’ve just never figured out why anyone would put a group of socially challenged kids in a room together and expect much success. I figure we can work on the academic stuff as it comes up, but the social skills are far more challenging to master. Yet it’s not just my child who needs training in this area. Quite frankly, I find many of his typical peers far more challenged in this area than C will ever be. I watched him compliment another child about his shirt recently, and I smiled at his earnestness and appropriateness in terms of timing, delivery, and tone. He probably shouldn’t have used the word “pretty” to describe the other boy’s shirt, but I figured he’d be forgiven the minimal error. When the other child merely grunted as a reply and turned away to talk to someone else, my heart broke just a little. Well, more than just a little.
I wanted to put that other kid in a friendship skills group of his own. Where can I sign him up?
On this morning of the first day of school, I find myself more anxious than usual about the new year. After one year of difficulties with boys, I thought it might be a fluke. After two years, I know it’s a pattern. So what will 3rd grade bring, and is there any way C can attend an all girls school?
The elusive path to friendship with a peer boy eludes C. I worry that all the boys in his class will be gargantuan-sized athletic boys who understand the subtle ways to tease someone else and get away with it. I have visions of C sitting alone at the lunch table, trying not to cry into his rice milk. Will yet another year pass with the only party invitation being from the boy whose Mother makes him invite the whole class?
We’ve done everything we can to pave the way to a successful year. We explored the idea of holding him back to be with a “nicer” group of boys, but decided against it. I met with C’s new principal multiple times to ensure his placement with the teacher who would be the best match for him. I took C in to meet with said best-match-teacher (heretoforeveraftermore dubbed “Mrs. D”) last week, and, as per usual, he is smitten (so am I). It helps that Mrs. D resembles “Peach,” C’s favorite Mario character, and has dog pictures scattered around her room.
There is hope. C’s desk is next to a girl from his class last year who was delightfully kind to him. I’ve volunteered to be class Mom in the hopes that I can arrange some playdates with other kids. The new special education teacher seems to be a definite bright spot.
I don’t want much. Just. One. Friend. Surely that’s not too much to ask.
There are always memorable comments made at C’s IEP meetings; comments that stick in my head for one reason or another. Usually, it’s because someone on his team has so beautifully captured something about him, and I hold the thought close to figure out what to do with it later. Long past the point of leaving an IEP meeting feeling as though my heart has been ripped from my chest and stomped on, I now feel as though the members of C’s team so closely grasp both his strengths and challenges that I find myself inspired to soldier on in shepherding this amazing child.
At C’s most recent IEP meeting it was the statement that C “has no core group of close friends” that stuck with me afterward. Friendly with most everyone, C seems to remain the friendliest kid in the world without any real friends. He’s definitely doing better - he has settled down and the kids seem to accept him more. Yet he continues to be, at his very center, alone. It struck me that this really is the crux of the issue for C. We can work around his handwriting challenges, and we’ll continue to address reading comprehension as the work becomes more difficult. It remains, however, that what none of us can seem to help him grasp is the very thing he needs the most.
As any parent with a special needs child will tell you, there are moments of extreme heartbreak. The moment when the specialist renders a diagnosis, or when you realize your child will struggle with something his whole life that other kids get in ten minutes, or when a school lets your child down. Yet often these moments come when you least expect them, and they are so swift and painful they take your breath away. Sometimes you don’t fully process them until later and you find yourself crying in the middle of the grocery store, reaching for your sunglasses and hoping you don’t see anyone you know.
When I watched C wander around the playground this morning before school, aimlessly looking for a familiar face, something started to well up inside me. The time was only a brief five or ten minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. It’s not for lack of wanting to connect with someone; this child is about as social as they come. So I watched, while he walked around, anxiously looking for a friend to share his time. All the playground noise of the zillion kids running around faded from my ears as my chest swelled with a sob. There’s something so awful about watching your own child, whom you love so dearly and so completely, struggle with something so basic, so fundamental to his very existence.
The moment became far bigger than it was, simply because it represents C’s challenges in the most profound way. He no longer approaches anyone and everyone with abandon, so he’s learned a lesson or two along the way. This is good and bad for the same reason: he’s more aware. Aware of some of the rules, yet aware he still doesn’t know exactly how the rules work. It’s a core issue of C’s version of autism.
The moment continued for me, while I later went about my day, sneaking up on me at inopportune times. Tears continued to drop here and there as I remembered his forlorn look as he milled about. Surely parents of “typical” children experience this at times, but I comforted myself by remembering that with the heartbreak comes moments (and there are more of these, truthfully) of extraordinary joy. Perhaps parents of special needs children experience the heartbreak and joy in more extreme ways, simply because there is nothing we can take for granted.