Teach your children to be strong and resistant to stress in settings that would otherwise make them crumble, misbehave, or act out to get attention from peers. Parents of children of all abilities wring their hands over teaching their children to be appropriate in new situations, to turn way from peer pressure and go into new settings with confidence, whether it’s
- a new classroom,
- a new school,
- an after school club or program,
- a team locker room, or
- a private party on a Saturday night.
Family members and friends of the family have told me that when I was little, they assumed I would grow up to be quiet and shy, basically socially incompetent. I’m not. (Thanks, Aunt Betty!) When I was very young, I was very geeky. The personal computer didn’t exist yet, I wore glasses, and being geeky was horrible. The reason I’m fine is, in a word, role-playing.
The hallmark deficits of many disorders – communication disorders, psychiatric disorders, and brain injuries – include social skills and social relationships. My son’s autism could have caused him extreme difficulty in social settings, but it hasn’t.
One of two things I credit for my son’s social confidence is teaching and practice of social skills, including role playing. (The other thing I credit – sensory integration – will form a future blog series. It’s also part of his personality to care what people think of him, because since he was little I told him good things happen to good boys. His personality helps.)
My Own Best Company, or how role-playing played a role
My geeky look and ineptness in child and teen years could have made me the subject of bullying today. Instead I created worlds for myself to conquer. During time spent in my room, when not reading lots of books, I day-dreamed about playing various adult or cartoon roles. Sometimes in scary situations I imagined vanquishing the danger with magic.
As I grew into a teenager, my imagination increasingly involved talking my way out of trouble. I’d be awake in bed for as much as an hour before falling asleep, since several different adult talk show hosts “invited me” to sit on a panel in their prime time shows. Usually I would imagine them asking me to discuss my accomplishments and give opinions about the news of the day. (I was silent and knew it was all just play.)
Constructing a Conversation
My conversational memory skills grew, as I tasked myself with replying with a certain length, taking turns, and listening carefully to the question. I’d consider what my impact was on the interviewer and how he (all talk show hosts were male) would seek to elaborate, or if we’d hit a dead end, change the subject.
Let me note, as an aside, that I was in bed early enough to have time to day dream!
Pretending to Be an Adult
Reading opens worlds otherwise inaccessible to a child. While I was still in public school, I read serious and flippant adult books almost every day. My readings eventually included the entire contents of my grandfather’s library, which entered our house when I was about 11. Among his holdings were dozens of scholarly books (by anthropologists, psychiatrists such as Jung and Freud, and philosophers), the works of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, collections of one-liners by great literary wits in the English language Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” Oscar Wilde, and Benjamin Franklin, a classic English library series, and the complete exploits of Sherlock Holmes.
Faking It, in Private
The books I read gave my pretend interviewers reasons to ask me questions and gave me things to “talk about.” Reading gave me more to have opinions about. By asking myself questions, in the form of the celebrity interviewer (a format that was more in-depth than today’s Tonight Show), I was learning to ask, and I was learning to wait for an answer and to listen. Teenagers go around saying things to each other like “Burn!” or “Touche’!” when they zing each other. I’d try to zing myself, and then come back to my comeback.
Today the complexity of my teenage internal dialogues amazes me. I’m aware that it’s unusual. It was a conscious, disciplined practice I used to develop my confidence in public speaking. As such, internal practice of dialogue is far from the capabilities of younger children, or of older children with language disorders. However, we as adults can encourage its equivalent, role-playing, as a practice in social competence. With our help, children can practice dialogues and asking questions.
Helping Children, and Adults, with Social Skills
People with autism are less likely to “play.” Role-playing games are common childhood games that they would, as children, have probably missed out on. We as adults who care about children with autism can teach them the more practical aspects of role-playing using concrete situations. With adults who have issues with social confidence or social cognition, it’s never too late to learn
The chart below is from a blog kept by a Communications student in Malaysia last year for a class project, proof that even as adults we continue to grow in social and communication skills.… to be continued…
A future blog post will discuss turning the language of beginning communicators into role-playing: turning “scripting” into scripts, and analyzing social situations.