By Robert Frengut, LMHC,
Beacon College, Leesburg, Florida
In spite of the enormous efforts put forth by families, the skilled special educators, and mental health professionals, the individual with a learning disability has one final challenge to meet in life: Social Acceptance.
Today, a learning disabled (LD) student must be capable of gaining acceptance into a societal structure that can be cruel and rejecting at times. By definition, the learning challenged individual already feels marginalized from mainstream society, and entry into the world community places a tremendous burden on their shoulders. An LD student may have developed strategies for learning but be lacking in the social graces. Many students have commented that they spent too much time on their special academic needs and not enough time just socializing with friends. Sadly, and for many, without the necessary social skills, an LD student faces a bleak outlook for the future in the real world.
Consider this: Sometimes our pets gain more social acceptance than our LD child! Dogs, who were domesticated over 15,000 years ago, have developed the capacity to read the social cues emanating from their owners. For example, voice tone, pitch, and facial gestures can aid a dog in locating food. This type of successful interaction across species is amazing! Sadly though, there are many people who are incapable of reading those subtle nuances. In order words, if the same analogy were applied to certain LD individuals, they would starve to death because they failed to pick up the necessary social cues that could help them locate food.
Children as young as 12 to 18 months can select an object being looked at by a speaker using social cues as a guide... yet so many LD students can fail at sensing the most elemental of these social and environmental cues, because they can't spontaneously process the information available to them.
And what about the most incredible marvel of technological advances... the computer. .. with worldwide accessibility? For the LD student, modern technology has proven to be a major resource for improvements in many skill areas... but we should be aware that this very same computer has also acted as a substitute for social interaction for many young people with a learning disability.
Experiencing social life vicariously through a screen is not, nor should it ever be, a substitute for real-time life involving animate life forms. Although the future may hold new software that specifically teaches the social skills, including the subtle nuances of non-verbal behavior, one should never underestimate the benefits of peer and adult interaction.
Given the wide variability of social deficits associated with the broad category of learning disabilities, one should ideally have an accurate neurological assessment of the location of the processing dysfunction itself.
If executive (frontal lobe) functions are impaired, then cognitive retraining can be instituted. This would include the development of new learning strategies specific to the deficit. However, we are not governed by executive functions exclusively. Emotion is basic to the human response system and developed through the genetic, environmental, and social experience of the individual.
According to Dr. Joseph LeDoux of New York University's Center for Neural Science, Emotions define who we are to ourselves as well as to others. Simply stated, our self-awareness, our identity is developed through relationships with others (along with genetic and environmental components). Therefore, we must learn to relate to the world in order for us to become integrated with it.
Teaching the social skills to young children/adolescents with an LD diagnosis (American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; DSM-N TR) is basic, and certain practitioners have developed some interesting techniques.
Dr. Dale S. Brown has written in Finding Friends and Persuading People: Teaching the Skills of Social Interaction and suggested the following strategies:
- Watching people's faces as you speak.
- Counting the number of times you speak and limiting it.
Learning the signals people make when they want to interrupt you.
- Appearing to listen.
Looking puzzled if they don't understand so the talker spontaneously repeats himself.
Maintaining eye contact as they speak and developing body language so that they can keep the floor and not allow interruptions -- such as a person who tries to finish his or her sentences.
Susan M. Ward writes in Our Children's Social Skills: An Important Key to Their Success in Life about the process involved in evaluating when and what skill training is necessary. According to Dr. Ward, Spend time assessing your child's social abilities. Ask your child's teacher for feedback. If your child seems less competent than other children her own age, she may need some remedial at-home coaching. Here are a few things to try as you help your child learn to become more socially competent:
- Estimate what age your child is when it comes to social and emotional abilities.
- Backtrack to that age and begin building new social skills.
- Start with self-awareness. Work with your child on being able to identify her own feelings, emotions, needs, and interests.
- Move onto verbal language skills when interacting with others. Review the appropriate response to words like, I'm Becca, who are you? That hurts. Don't do that. What are you doing? Can I play? You're making me mad. Please help with this. Do you want to play grocery store?
- Teach non-verbal language skills and the appropriate response to things like speed of actions, body language, eye contact, facial emotions, and personal space.
- Move onto social/interaction skills: introducing yourself, joining in to play with others, taking turns, resolving conflicts, etc.
- Use games, puppets, and stories to help your child learn her new skills.
- Have your child practice the new skill with you and other family members.
- Provide opportunities for your child to try out his new skill with other children. Try to find ways for your child to practice with younger children until he builds his' confidence.
- After he has mastered one new skill, add another.
- Provide opportunities to go back and review earlier steps if needed. And, with children struggling with nonverbal cues, review and practice those over and over.
Many of our older adopted children need multiple interventions, therapists, and mentoring to help them meet their full potential. Social skills development should not be ignored. Their ability to successfully interact socially will impact their success in school, their career paths, and their lifelong relationships.
The above authors are but a few of the professional voices espousing the same message: success in life is largely determined by the degree of social acceptance one can achieve. An insurmountable challenge for the LD student? No, but parents and educators should be particularly aware of the social component in the overall growth and development of an LD child. It matters not if John or Sally attained a B+ average in college if he or she can't get past a job interview successfully.
Originally published in the Learning Disabilities Association of Nebraska Newsbriefs, Spring 2003