Social Skills Training is problematic for so many reasons, yet it is still something I see prescribed within the majority of Education Health Care Plans. It seems that the first thing everyone comments about for autistic clients in Speech and Language Therapy is ‘social communication difficulties’. Don’t get me wrong, I can see where parents, educators and other professionals come from because we’ve all been conditioned into thinking there is only one right way to communicate. Anything which differs from the ‘norm’ is defined as inappropriate, it is pathologised and in need of fixing.
“But they’re not going to get anywhere in life if they don’t have the appropriate social skills!” people will say when I state that my ethical boundaries as a professional mean I will not deliver Social Skills Training. Trust me, I used to think this too, when I was a Newly QualifiedTherapist and hadn’t heard of the Neurodiversity Paradigm (more on Neurodiversity-Affirming Practice here), before I knew of my own autistic identity. I remember leading a Social Skills group, where the goal was to work on eye contact (read here for why we shouldn’t have goals around eye contact), appropriate greetings and conversation endings, I remember it so clearly because it just felt wrong. Something in my gut, as an undiagnosed autistic person told me that this type of practice was something I couldn’t continue to use.
So what is so bad about Social Skills Training?
The cost of masking
Informally, throughout my life I have received Social Skills Training. My family, teachers and friends have all taught me that the vast majority of my social behaviours are unlikeable and inappropriate. As a child, I would have ‘silly spells’ where I would stim and express my big feelings of excitement, in those moments I was told I was too much. This meant that I stuffed up all that emotion and hid it away, suppressing my stims, loud voice and fast pace. “What’s so bad about that? It meant you had friends didn’t it?” you might ask.
Yeah, on the surface it appeared that people liked me but really as much as I hid who I was socially, people always knew I was different. I couldn’t spend too much time around people because my authentic self would come out and that friendship would be ruined. At points in my life I was unable to let people close in case they saw who I really was. The cost of suppressing my natural communication meant holding tension in my body, causing migraines and stomach issues. The cost on my mental health was inconceivable.
Who even am I?
A question that I’ve asked myself since I was a little girl. I had no idea what I genuinely liked and who I was because I had been forced into hiding my authentic, autistic self. I would lie awake at night thinking of new scripted language and social interactions, tweaking them in my mind to make myself more and more likeable. I was never myself outside of my bedroom door, so how would I know who I am at all?
Not understanding your identity means that you are so much more vulnerable to abuse. Autistic people are three times more likely to experience abuse and 90% of late-diagnosed autistic women report abuse. When we mask,we constantly violate our boundaries, both body and personal. How can we continue to teach social skills knowing this? Carly Jones highlights the safeguarding risks for autistic girls in her book: Safeguarding Autistic Girls, which I would highly recommend!
It just doesn’t work!
Social Skills Training doesn’t change the brain, despite what research might say. I can tell you as an autistic person who has lived this that everything others taught me did not change my brain or who I am. As an adult I am learning to unmask all the things I hid because it is better for my mental health and relationships. Social Skills Training only teaches us how to mask and suppress our autistic traits so that we seem more likeable to neurotypicals.
It doesn’t account for the Double Empathy Problem
The Double Empathy Problem states that autistic people are successful in their communication with other autistics. Thebreakdown in communication comes when a two different neurotypes interact. Communication breakdowns occur due to both parties, autistic people for too long have been told they are the ones at fault. Why is neurotypical communication given higher status? Just because it is the majority?
If not Social Skills Training, then what?
This is a question, which often gets asked of me because there has to be some type of support for autistic people in navigating the confusing social world. So, here are a few areas we can support with:
- Teaching self-advocacy skills – being able to self-advocate allow autistic people to maintain their boundaries, reduce vulnerability and improve mental health.
- Education about autism and neurodiversity – of course, autistic people should learn about their neurological differences but it shouldn’t stop there. Neurotypicals should also learn about the differences in neurotypes so that there is more understanding and acceptance. This will reduce instances of bullying and isolation of autistic people.
- Normalise alternative forms of communication (such as writing or text to speech apps) – many autistic people experience periods of mutism and require Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) which needs more awareness and acceptance in the community.
- Provide access to the autistic community – it’s so important that autistic people have the support and acceptance of likeminded people. Since my diagnosis I have found so much joy in interacting with the autistic community because unmasking comes so much easier.
With these points in mind, I have been running a Neurodiversity Group which has been a huge success with my clients so far and I really look forward to sharing it with you! For now, I have made a factsheet on Social Skills Training to help support professionals and parents to understand why we need a new approach, you can download it by clicking here!
Autistic people should never have to change who they are to meet social norms, which are based on the neurotypical experience. We are great as we are and our differences should be celebrated!