Why Social Skills Programs Don’t Work

by Katrina Martin on August 17, 2022

Conventional Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and social skills programs for Autistic and neurodivergent youth have been used for decades in an attempt to “normalize” kids and extinguish Autistic traits. They are built upon a foundation that there is *one* way to interact, communicate, and exist in the world (aka the neurotypical way) and that any other way is wrong, shameful, and inappropriate.

Why are we still teaching our kids these things? Why are we still impressing upon them this notion that how they experience life, how they experience sensory stimuli, how they communicate, and how they interact with others is wrong?

It’s time we stop relying on social skills curricula and start making a change to authentically supporting Autistic and neurodivergent youth. That’s why we’re breaking down 3 things that are wrong with social skills programs and 3 ways you can make it right.

Social skills programs are harmful because:

1. They prioritize and only validate one way of communicating and interacting (aka the neurotypical way).

Most convention SEL and social skills programs that are designed for Autistic and neurodivergent youth impress upon students that there are “normal” ways to communicate and interact. This can include things like eye contact, turn-taking, not interrupting, choosing “appropriate” topics, and more. Communicating and interacting in ways that fall outside of those expectations are deemed “deficient” and in need of correcting.

Not only is this categorization of “one right way” ableist and culturally insensitive, but it also teaches students that their natural ways of communicating, thinking, and being are less valuable than their neurotypical peers. Their thoughts, actions, and communication have less value simply because they don’t follow neurotypical patterns.

2. They ignore or invalidate sensory needs.

Repeat after us, there is no universal sensory experience.

Most social skills programs that are designed for Autistic and neurodivergent youth don’t acknowledge this and even place an expectation that all folks have (or should have) the same sensory experience.

The only time they do acknowledge that a sensory stimulus doesn’t work for Autistic and neurodivergent kids is only when accommodations don’t “infringe upon other kids.” So, things like wearing headphones to reduce classroom chatter is allowed but altering the classroom environment to reduce classroom chatter isn’t considered. This then places all the responsibility on the child to make their environment more sensory-friendly and none of the focus on changing the actual environment.

3. They teach children to understand and recognize emotions solely through emotion words and neuro-normative facial expressions.

Emotion words and singular facial expressions (i.e. smiles and big eyes = happy) aren’t accessible or representative ways to describe feelings to all people. Yet, most social skills programs rely heavily on both as ways to teach feelings.

Many Autistic and neurodivergent people experience alexithymia, or difficulty noticing and identifying one’s emotions. Programs that place such a heavy emphasis on what emotions are “supposed” to look like can encourage masking.

In short, social skills programs for Autistic and neurodivergent children teach:

  1. That their way of communicating and interacting is wrong.
  2. That their sensory needs aren’t needs or aren’t needs that should be prioritized.
  3. That understanding and identifying feelings can only be done through emotion words.

But don’t worry, we also have 3 ways you can adapt or swap your SEL program to authentically support Autistic and neurodivergent youth:

1. Understand, self-identify, explore, and celebrate many different ways of communicating and interacting.

When we consider all ways of communicating and interacting as valid, the goal changes. Instead of forcing all people to behave in one way, the goal becomes supporting children in identifying their ways of communicating and interacting as well as bridging an understanding of other ways someone might communicate or interact.

This framework should not only be used with Autistic and neurodivergent children but neurotypical children, as well. Only then are we truly creating an environment where it’s everyone’s responsibility to learn about themselves and accept the many ways of being.

2. Acknowledge and validate all sensory needs and support folks in getting their sensory needs met.

When we recognize that the idea of a “standard” sensory profile is rather absurd, we can re-focus our energy on building understanding around the unique experiences of all people. When we acknowledge sensory needs as needs, just as important as the need to eat and sleep, we start validating those sensory experiences.

From there, we also need to work to meet those needs. And this is not by asking the child to find ways to support their own needs, but by changing environments, routines, and expectations to meet the sensory needs of everyone in the room!

3. Expand children’s vocabulary around feelings and explore how to use feelings as information.

While emotion words like happy, sad, angry, etc. can be useful for some as a way to express and understand their emotions, it doesn’t work for all. Using the concepts of interoception, understanding emotions through values, or using comparisons (e.g. “I feel like a tree planted firmly in the ground”) are also valid ways of understanding emotions that can benefit all children.

Ultimately, support children in understanding emotions in whatever way works best for them! Being able to identify one’s emotions is a stepping stone toward understanding one’s feelings and needs—both of which are crucial to building interoceptive awareness.

Stop focusing on social skills, start focusing on understanding. Understanding one’s own social, communication, and emotional styles and understanding other ways of being. This means shifting to a neurodiversity-affirming lens rather than a deficit-based lens because there really is no one right way to be.

If you’re ready to replace your conventional SEL or social skills program with a neurodiversity-affirming program, check out the Social-Emotional Acuity (SEA) Bridge curriculum.

The SEA Bridge is the first of its kind. For use by SLPs, OTs, and educators, the SEA Bridge is a social-emotional online curriculum that authentically supports Autistic and neurodivergent youth. A curriculum that asks students, “How do you experience the world and how can we make environments, systems, people, etc. supportive to your needs?” A curriculum built BY the Autistic and neurodivergent communities FOR Autistic and neurodivergent youth. A curriculum that makes adopting neurodiversity-affirming practices so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

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