From an article by Dena Tenenhouse

Over the years, parents, educators, and psychologists have come to realize that children, adolescents, and adults with learning disabilities are struggling not only with the challenges of academic life but also with their everyday social interactions.  To see a child face rejection, isolation, loneliness, and bullying, and to see the pain, frustration, and low self-esteem that can result is quite troubling.   Lack of social competence can have devastating short-term and long-term effects on psychological development and can even lead to other mental health problems, such as depression.

Research into social incompetence and LD shows that these individuals share a number of characteristics:

  • They have more difficulty solving social problems.
  • They are more likely to choose unacceptable behaviour in social situations.
  • They are less likely to adjust to the characteristics of their listeners in conversations.
  • They are less able to successfully deal with complex social interactions, such as peer pressure or giving and accepting criticism.
  • They are more likely to be the object of negative, non-supportive comments from adults.
  • They are less adaptive to new situations.
  • They have a lower tolerance for frustration and failure.

There are two schools of thought as to the nature and causes of social incompetence.  The first hypothesis states that social skills deficits are the result of the same neurological dysfunction attributed to academic difficulties.  The second hypothesis states that social disabilities result from the fact that children with ongoing scholastic failure are rejected and isolated and thus denied the opportunity to practice positive social skills.

In my experience working with children with socialization problems, both theories may be true depending on the individual’s particular profile.  Given the supportive opportunity to socialize, some children easily employ the appropriate social skills and build their confidence, while others exhibit social awkwardness and a deficiency in the skills for social competence.  These latter types of individuals require explicit teaching of social concepts and skills as well as a supportive environment in which to practice them.

Depending on the type of LD, the impact on social competence can vary.  For example, a nonverbal learning disability can pose many challenges for social development.  A nonverbal LD involves motoric difficulties, visual-spatial organization (spatial perception and relations) difficulties, and various typical social deficits.  When a child presents as uncoordinated and awkward, activities such as playing sports, climbing a jungle gym at the park, or visually tracking a board game don’t come easily.  These activities may then be avoided or done poorly, thus evoking negative reactions from peers.  When a child experiences poor visual-spatial organization, he may stand too close when engaging in conversation, misread facial expressions and body language, or be overly focussed on details and thus not see the whole picture.  One can imagine the implications these characteristics can have on social interactions.  A child who has trouble recognizing emotions if they are not explicitly verbalized, who doesn’t pick up on subtle social cues, who has a tendency to take comments literally, or who talks incessantly about a specific topic will likely find it extremely difficult to develop positive relationships.

As well as nonverbal learning disabilities, other types of learning disabilities can also lead to social problems.  Language-based and auditory processing LDs can affect the ability to use and understand spoken language and the confidence to participate in conversations.  The challenge of spontaneously contributing to conversations may lead the child to act out, withdraw, or give minimal or ineffective responses such as “I don’t know.”  While trying to retrieve the socially appropriate word, these children may use the wrong term, causing their peers to laugh and think they are weird or stupid.

Those children affected with ADHD also experience a high incidence of social problems.  Their struggle with distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity influence the way they manage interactions, their choice of social skills for a particular situation, and their ability to wait for the right time to implement them.

Playing with peers is supposed to be fun and enhancing to one’s self-esteem, yet for these children it can be a dreaded experience.  With any type of LD or ADHD the child may experience some anxiety around social performing, which will in itself affect how they are able to learn and use social skills.  In addition to the effects of LD and ADHD, there are other factors that can contribute to social competence.  For example, a child’s temperament, that is, the level of emotionality and sociability, will influence his interactions.  As well, social behaviours that are modeled by other family members are of some consequence.

While understanding the reasons for social difficulties is important for parents and others involved with the child, knowing how to help develop social competence becomes the focus.  Yet, critical as it is for many of these children, the challenge of “teaching” social skills can be fairly daunting, sensitive, and awkward.  For parents there is the intense emotional involvement and the tendency to function on “automatic parenting pilot”; for the child there are the feelings of shame and frustration.  Consequently, working on building up the awareness and the behaviour involved in social interactions is no easy task. Nevertheless there are some helpful strategies for improving social competence.

Identify the problem.

Observe your child in a variety of settings and social situations in order to recognize and identify what may be going wrong or what skills are missing.

Ask the teacher, camp counsellor, or others working with your child for feedback on how your son/daughter interacts and try to get specific examples. While this can be painful to hear, keep in mind it can also be helpful information.

Prepare your child for the situation and prepare the situation for your child. Remember not to overprotect and avoid exposing your child to social environments, but evaluate the situations.

Preparing involves several different steps:

Discuss the social situation with them–what kinds of things might happen, who may be there, activities that will occur and how to deal with them.

When possible, visit the place beforehand to get them familiar with the setting and, again if possible, introduce them to the person in charge. Link this new experience to some past positive experience.

Next prepare the situation for the child. A typical concern of parents is whether or not to tell the adult working with the child about the LD/ADHD. My advice is to at least describe the specific difficulties that are relevant to the occasion. You might be surprised at how a reading disability or difficulty following verbal instructions can come up even at a birthday party or a soccer game.

Don’t set your child up for embarrassment or disaster and ruin what otherwise could have been a fun experience. Telling the adult in charge some helpful ideas can avoid pain for your child.  Remember to include some of strengths to keep a balanced appearance.

Remind your child of what’s expected.

Prompt for specific social behaviours just before or in the particular situation. But be discreet keep in mind not to embarrass your child. Using a predetermined signal, that only the two of you know, can be helpful.

Practice with your child.

Practice social skills using role-playing, real life experiences, and scripts. Make it fun and be creative.

Review your child’s social interactions.

Examine what occurred for both successes and errors.

Look at causes and effects between behaviour/messages and the reactions of others.

Explore what both verbal and nonverbal messages meant and what feelings may have been felt.

Ask questions like “What do you think you did? ” or “What do you think you could do?” If they don’t know, tell them the likely outcome.

Help your child understand the subtleties of language.

Decipher more subtle and abstract meanings and idioms of conversation. Using a conversation or a TV show or movie can provide some examples to go over.

Encourage your child to play with others.

Facilitate play dates, but don’t impose another child on yours. Everyone has preferences in regard to whom they want to play with.

For nonverbal LD, provide verbal explanations.

It is important to verbally explain social concepts and give rules and reasons for the social skills.

Explain abstract terms such as “friendly” and “cooperative.”

Teach body language and facial expressions and the meanings they have.

Be empathic when social failures occur.

Instead of criticizing, try saying things like, “I know you didn’t realize that…” or “I know you didn’t want such and such to happen when you… ”

Use these incidents as learning opportunities. Remember that social failures are usually due to a deficit, so be patient, not reprimanding.

Consider professional interventions. A social skills program and/or counselling can be useful in helping promote social competence.