By Stephanie D. Sanders, MA, CCC-SLP, author of The FILTER Approach: Social Communication Skills for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
While creating The FILTER Approach, I took exhaustive measures to help students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) identify, comprehend, and explain essential social skills, while putting them into practice. As I implemented this curriculum, it began a personal perspective-taking opportunity for me. I noticed weaknesses within my own communication skills in specific situations. A perfect example is my inability to Listen to my family with technology distractions in view (thank you, Pinterest). Demonstrating social errors as a neurotypical Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) could likely justify a new DSM-5 diagnosis of “social skills hypocrite.”
The truth is that most of us have room for improvement socially and in considering the perspectives of those with social impairments. Perspective-taking tasks usually present a challenge to individuals with ASD, due to Theory of Mind. I’ve frequently referenced the idiom “put yourself in my shoes” with students during these activities. However, SLP’s can also struggle with taking perspective when driven by accountability for pragmatic language goals printed on a report. I become frustrated when my student resists the educationally relevant IEP goals that will undoubtedly transform him or her into a social skills superhero. An epiphany soon occurred with a hint of witty wordplay. My mission: try taking a new perspective on perspective-taking.
I began investigating:
- How do those with social impairments perceive conversation?
I asked students individually, “Why are conversations important?” The same response was consistently given, “To find out information.” This perspective came across as task-driven, lacking any element of enjoyment. Some interrogation sessions I’ve witnessed appear to be information-seeking at its finest. In other instances, my students feel obligated to be the source of information. They lecture peers regarding topics of interest, rather than seeking to find out information. We’ve discussed how obsessive interests and “conversation hog” habits will cause one to miss the Target, socially. I’ve also taught this concept in the middle school gifted-student classroom during monthly F.I.L.T.E.R. lessons. Luckily, the “conversation hog” reference hasn’t triggered any speeches about swine or guinea pig fixations!
Other questions on my mind:
- How are common rules of social language perceived?
- What are the most stressful things about social situations?
My little brother Zach was diagnosed with an ASD at the age of thirteen and was my primary inspiration for “The FILTER Approach.” As part of this perspective-taking endeavor, I knew it would be beneficial to get Zach’s viewpoint on social rules. I asked him to speak freely, without concern of giving a wrong answer.
Me: What do you think the expression, “Put yourself in his/her shoes” means?
Zach: It means you should consider the other person’s feelings.
Me: Exactly. I want to put myself in your shoes to find out what conversation is like for you, having an ASD. I want to know your perspective about some social rules in conversation.
Me: What do I mean when I tell you to “use your filter” in conversation?
Zach: It’s what you should or should NOT say in conversation. If you always say what you’re thinking, then you could look bad as an employee, lose respect, and look unconcerned about feelings.
Me: Great explanation! Now I want your perspective on some social rules from my book. How do you feel about making eye contact and looking for Facial clues?
Zach: A little uncomfortable. A symptom of people with Autism is sometimes having a hard time with eye contact. I don’t want to give too much and it’s hard for me to know.
Me: Very true. We’ve talked about glancing, which works. You’ve done a nice job of avoiding inappropriate topics in person. However, you and many other people might post strong opinions on Facebook. Why do you think that is?
Zach: On Facebook, it’s virtual and like your own little world, so it’s not as real. It’s uncomfortable in person because you’re actually with them.
Me: I see what you’re saying. Do you think it’s hard to Listen during a conversation with someone and why or why not?
Zach: It can be a lot of work. Sometimes I run out of things to say or my mind is off-topic while I’m trying to listen. The conversation gets stressful if it’s too long and boring. Sometimes, I think about something totally unrelated, like a conversation with someone earlier.
Me: Staying focused probably does feel like a lot of work. Why do you think we should try to “hit the Target” socially and what did we talk about for your target?
Zach: We should make goals to be successful. I need to close my conversations with “See you later” and ask about someone else’s interests.
Me: Excellent. Is it awkward for you to End conversations with people at places like church or work?
Zach: Yes, because I run out of things to say. It’s also difficult to end things at work when my shift is over. I want to tell my manager I’m ready to leave, but he’s usually busy. If I just leave, I might look disrespectful like I’m trying to get out of my job.
Me: Later, we’ll make a plan for leaving work. Is it difficult for you to Repair conversation mistakes you’ve made and have you used some of the Repair tools we’ve talked about?
Zach: I’ve used some. Apologizing can be hard and it’s hard to admit you’re wrong. I’ve asked, “Should I stop now?” when the person was being quiet. I also messaged, “Did I say something wrong?” two times to someone on Facebook who quit talking to me. He never responded, so I didn’t ask anymore.
Me: I’m so proud of you for trying to Repair social mistakes. You made a good choice to quit asking when the person on Facebook never responded. At least you tried.
Me: Overall, what are the most stressful things for you in social situations?
Zach: It’s stressful because:
- I don’t know what the other person is thinking.
- I don’t know if I’ve said something wrong.
- I don’t know what will happen to that friendship (in the future).
- It’s tough to start new friendships as an adult.
- Losing a childhood friendship is discouraging and can’t be replaced.
- I’ve become shy as an adult.
Me: Thanks for sharing, Zach. Therapists need to consider what it’s like for someone with ASD to follow these rules. It has really helped me to hear your perspective.
From Zach’s outlook, it must be draining to worry about confusing social cues and potential negative outcomes. If someone repeatedly struggles to use verbal and nonverbal social behaviors in conversation, then it could become a losing battle. Isn’t it easier to retreat into a virtual world where at least all of the nonverbal challenges are removed? Many of our students/clients with ASD’s could perceive communication as a lot of effort with little worth.
The challenge is to find pragmatic goals that are realistic, beneficial, and meaningful for our students/clients. The perspectives of these individuals are usually disregarded as wrong with an immediate need for change. If I truly listen to the individual’s perspective, I can not only set an example of showing interest, but also ensure my therapy approach remains individualized. I can clearly and personally define the advantages of practicing good social habits now in order to make future social success a possibility. Taking the student’s perspective increases my chances of enlisting him or her in therapy, which will result in a more socially responsible individual. Early investment in the views of my students could allow the opportunity to become an influence in rewriting a lifelong story filled with social struggles and disappointments.