Social Skills & Self Confidence for Kids With Special Needs

This past week, I came across a question on a list serv regarding social skills and her child with special needs who has limited speech but is very social. I think this is something at one time or another we all struggle with, so with her permission, I am sharing a beautiful response from a parent that I know.  It is a bit longer than what I would normally post, but I simply could not cut anything out.  Thank you Jennifer Duran, for allowing us to share your words of wisdom- they are powerful on many levels. 

Question posted:  "What else can I do to 'improve' her social skills while keeping her self esteem and self confidence intact?"

It is a work in progress but what we've worked on is letting our daughter be who she is, and oftentimes it's the rest of the world that has to adjust a little to work her in to their expectations.  We believe this is okay - everyone deserves a little adjustment.  As parents we often think very little of adjusting for the behaviors of typically-developing kids; kids with bad manners because they're a little spoiled or overly-entitled; kids who don't have diagnoses but just come from poor parenting. In fact I think kids like ours are great 'medicine' for these affected typically-developing kids who have not yet developed empathy.  The results may surprise you.

Our daughter is 11 - she does have pretty solid speech but she's very social and a hugger, hanger-on too, sometimes in inappropriate settings. I used to really freak out about this (and still do in certain circumstances - mostly when she's reaching out to total strangers) but I've also learned that this social aspect is just part of her gift; who she is.  So there are a few things I've learned in parenting classes that have helped me -

1)  I try to praise the 'correct' behavior more than point out the incorrect.  For instance, if we're passing a group of 'interesting' boys somewhere and she just gives them 'high fives' as she passes by instead of hanging on them I point out that she did a great job of appropriate contact.  It seems to make her feel good about herself - she's fulfilling her need to reach out to people but in a way that was positively rewarded by me and she received the interaction with the group as well, which is what she wanted.

2)  When something on the edge of inappropriate happens I give it a minute to see what the other person will do - will they hold their boundaries and handle it gracefully?  Will she take the cues from the other person and back off?  Frequently, when I give this minute to my daughter and the other person, it ends pretty uneventfully.  And then I have a chance to praise her for backing off when the other person asked her to.  I call this a success because she learns more from someone else's feedback than from mine.   Of course there are times when I have to intervene, but in many cases she and the other person figure out how to handle it.  This is also great in situations where we'll see the same people time after time.  If folks develop ways to communicate directly with her it becomes a non-issue really quickly.  If they are always relying on me to do it for them, then she is not getting any independence and it's more likely to become a 'thing.'  It also means the other person is not learning any new skills or tolerance.  My daughter is a pioneer in many circumstances in her life (school, swim team, our fitness center) and I truly believe she's there to teach people - 'Yes, you can talk directly to me.  I'm worth knowing and I'm worth the little bit of work it takes to 'get' me.'  I'm so pleasantly shocked at kids (and some adults) I've known for several years now who would avoid her when they first met her or roll their eyes at her different behavior.  They are often her biggest fans now because they've gotten to know her on personal terms - I am often unwilling to just 'handle' my daughter for people if she's not doing anything wrong and just making people uncomfortable.  I am happy to let the discomfort hang as a way to force people to confront it and deal with it.  If it's 'handled' for them they will never be challenged to take this step.  It has taken me years to learn this - that my kid is not an inconvenience to others; she's worthy.  It's not my job to push her out of someone else's path of discomfort.

3) When something is an issue we talk about empowerment.  For instance, she occasionally has an issue with impulse control.  She'll touch or do something she knows is forbidden before she can stop herself.  When she's overly stressed or tired of course, this is more likely to happen - in all of 3rd and 4th grades we had just two incidents of this.  In 5th grade so far this year we've already had 2 incidents - but 5th grade is really challenging and she's tired at the end of the day, which is always when something happens.   One strategy that we employ when she is telling us 'I won't do that again' is to ask her 'What can you do next time instead?'  For instance, if she's grabbing a friend because she wants to talk to them, what else could she do to get their attention that would be okay?    Putting the power in her hands, and challenging her to think about it and come up with an answer herself makes it more likely that she'll remember when the time comes to put her plan into action.  It's her solution!

It's interesting.  I was recently thinking about the line 'failure is not an option.'  You see I work in technology and so this question of failure versus safety is at the forefront of many debates at work.  While the context is a bit different than what was mentioned as “failure not being an option in this piece of parenting”, I'm opining for a minute because it's been on my heart- actually I think failure IS an option.  I think it's an important option because it leads us to take risks that we otherwise wouldn't, which is the only way to get to new innovations and push through boundaries that once looked like impassable barriers.  And as a person who has failed personally and professionally many, many times in life, I believe that failure, even for our kids, is fine. I often tell her teachers and coaches that she thrives on failure - as in, she'll handle her inability to do something much better than quietly observing that she never even got the chance to try - and not feeling entitled to ask why not.  I see this play out time and time again - her self-awareness grows and while there are moments of frustration and pure heartbreak, they are buffered with the sense of accomplishment in just being able to try and see how far she can get.  Not all the 'typical' kids are successful all the time either - and she notices that too. We seem to feel obligated make room for those kids' failures; I believe the world can make room for our kids too :>).  Thankfully when challenged, most of the world responds beautifully!