SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING

Tone policing, double standards, neurotypical bias, discounting autistic social skills

Social Skills interventions are based on neurotypical developmental and social norms.​ 

 
They discount autistic brains. The majority of autistic children accessing SLT services are supported by neurotypical professionals, which means children are being told how they should socialise by a neurotype who experience the world very differently than they do.
 
  • Autistic children have shown to have better social engagement when they are with other autistic children than when they are with their neurotypical peers (Kasari et al., 2015). So finding the right group of people is ESSENTIAL for autistic people.
     
  • Neurotypical peers are shown to be less willing to interact with autistic people (Sasson et al., 2017) which highlights the need to help NTs understand autistic communication. It explains to them that autistic people are more at risk of being bullied and socially excluded.
A woman is shaking hands with a man. They are dressed in business clothes and making eye contact

how neurotypical social skills look

Two teenagers are playing video games together. They appear to be chatting and are sat side by side

how autistic social skills might look

SOCIAL SKILL INTERVENTIONS

"Social Thinking"

"positive behaviour = good thoughts = I feel happy". "Whole body listening" - eyes watching, feet still, mouth quiet, hands still"

"Pivotal Response Training"

  • 15-20 hours of intervention a week

  • Techniques from ABA

  • "Reduce disruptive behaviours"

  • "Reduce ritualistic behaviours"

  • "Broaden children's interests

  • "Improve verbal language as their primary communication."

"The Social Express"

"Attentive listening - look at who is talking, nodding their head"

"Demonstrate effective social judgment"

"Make appropriate conversational topic shifts"

"Terminate conversations by using appropriate behaviour, vocal changes"

"Communicate with others in an acceptable manner"

"Use eye contact to demonstrate interest in peer conversations"

"PEERS Social Skills"

"treatment program"

"Appropriate use of humour"

"Good sportsmanship"

"How to be a good host during get togethers"

"How to change a bad reputation"

"Early Start Denver Model"

"Treat core symptoms of autism by altering underlying brain structure to more closely resemble the development of neurotypical children"

It's more complex than you think...

Two teenagers sat facing each other having a conversation, making eye-contact sat down on a bench

Ableist language: 

 assessment descriptors

The majority of assessments are based on neuronormative children and are designed to look for "social impairments". What's more, the people creating these assessments are not autistic - they are NT, which means there's an inherent bias in how these assessments are designed. Examples below:

  • "Gives too much / too little information"

  • "Uses too many questions" 

  • "obsessional topics"

  • "interrupts speaker frequently"

  • "Says things that sound babyish"

  • "Is babied, teased, or bullied by other children"

  • Behaves in ways which seem strange or bizarre

  • Has strange way of playing with toys

  • Has difficulty “relating” to adults

  • Is too tense in social settings

Autism Social Skills Profile (Bellini)

  • "Maintains eye contact during conversations" -

  • "Speaks with an appropriate volume" -

  • "Provides compliments to others"

  • "Politely asks others to move out their way"

  • "Changes the topic of conversations to fit self-interests" -

  • "Engages in solitary interests and hobbies"

Pragmatics Profile (CELF-4)

  • "avoids use of redundant information"

  • introduces appropriate topics of conversations"

  • tells jokes / stories appropriate to the situation"

  • shows appropriate sense of humour during communication situations"

  • "offers to help others appropriately"

  • responds to teasing, anger, failure, disappointment appropriately" 

  • "apologises / accepts apologies appropriately"

Social Skills assessment (Do2Learn) 

  • "I use appropriate body language when talking to someone"

  • "Even when I am frustrated I am able to stay calm" 

  • "When talking to someone who I don't know well, I avoid such topics such as religion"

  • "I wear appropriate clothing to school"

  • "I avoid showing strange behaviours e.g. making noises in public"

DOUBLE STANDARDS

The above descriptors / behaviours are not exclusively seen in autistic children. Would you expect a neurotypical child to "stay calm when frustrated / apologise appropriately / responds to teasing, anger, failure, disappointment appropriately"? What does responding to teasing appropriately look like? Would you even expect these from neurotypical ADULTS? Because I know many adults who don't do these things. Words like 'should' & 'inappropriate' are utterly subjective, culturally biased, and very open to interpretation because they rely on hugely on the person / observer who is making these judgments.
There are double standards when it comes to autistic and NT children. So many professionals expect neurodivergent children to not only conform to unrealistic social norms, but then blame / shame them for not doing so. Encouraging autistic children to suppress their autistic traits and act more neurotypical damages their self-esteem as it sends the message "the way you think / act is wrong". It leads to masking, which then leads to poor mental health (well documented) and sets children up for a lifetime of low self-worth, since the message is "you need fixing". Forcing autistic kids to look "indistinguishable from peers" tells autistic children that being autistic is something to be ashamed of. Adults don't place the same social norms and standards on NT children.
 
The irony is that NTs constantly say autistic people have social deficits and impairments, but don't look at themselves - For example, I know plenty of NTs who:
  • Interrupt the speaker
  • Bombard you with questions and don't listen to the answers
  • Change the conversation topic to fit their interests
  • Talk over you
  • Dominate conversations
  • Don't apologise
  • Swear at inappropriate times
  • Aren't aware of other people's feelings
  • Don't acknowledge people's responses during conversation
  • Talk about politics, religion, sex to people they don't know well
  • Don't give you time to respond
  • Give too much / too little information
  • Lack empathy
  • Don't ask people politely to move out their way
It's OK to....
  • spend time alone engaging in hobbies and enjoying solitude
  • talk at length about things you love & info-dump (even if others find it boring)
  • be your authentic self and express yourself, even if it looks 'strange or bizarre'
  • show 'strange behaviours' in public e.g. echolalia, stimming
  • express big feelings like anger - this is self-regulation and self-advocacy
  • advocate for yourself if you are being bullied or teased
  • ask questions when you don't understand something
  • 'interrupt a speaker (they might be ignoring you, dominating the conversation)


​It's NOT ok to...
  • label a child's speech is "babyish".
  • infer that a child who's being "bullied or teased" is linked with their 'social deficits' or that there's something wrong with them
  • expect a child in distress to "stay calm" for the sake of being polite
  • expect a child to "pay compliments" to others. They're children!
  • expect a child to be polite / submissive if they are being "bullied or teased"
  • expect a 3-year old to: 'relate to adults' - perspective-taking skills typically start emerging from Age 10 onwards.
  • make assumptions and assign judgment of behaviours which others deem as inappropriate
A young boy is lying down on his stomach on the floor playing with toys all around him. He is smiling and appears to be having fun.

TONE-POLICING

In the context of autism tone-policing is when a neurotypical person criticises the way an autistic person says something. E.g. "I don't like the way you said that", "you are being blunt / aggressive / cold / inappropriate / rude".
 
The reality is, it can be exceptionally hard for an autistic person to integrate all the complex components of communicating a message - tone of voice, finding the right words, planning, sequencing / motor planning, remembering, expressing and using words, staying regulated, reacting to sensory stimuli, monitoring the other person's cues.
Source: https://neuroclastic.com/2020/08/19/toxic-positivity-gaslighting-and-tone-policing-autistic-people/
A graphic of a white and red megaphone with two yellow thunderbolts, signifying sound coming out
 

Re-framing turn-taking

Turn-taking is the conversational act of taking turns. Everyone in the interaction should have opportunities talk. A conversation is a relational, transactional process. SLT assessments for autistic children put a huge emphasis on turn-taking and frequently label this as impaired or 'poor'.

Turn-taking is more complex than you think

A group of teens smiling are sat in a semi-circle looking at an adult, who appears to be a teacher
  1. Turn-taking in a conversation is a highly-nuanced skill.
     
  2. People have different ideas of when it's an appropriate time to speak in a conversation. Sometimes there are long natural pauses whereby it's easier to spot a cue of when it's your opportunity to speak. Often though, you may have milliseconds to jump in before the other person continues to talk. Sometimes there are NO pauses and you have to talk over someone to let them know you want to speak.
     
  3. Conversational Analysis illustrates how MESSY and disjointed conversations are; people naturally interrupt each other and talk over each other without there being any malicious intent or rudeness. We see this on Zoom / Microsoft Teams - how often do people talk at the same time? This isn't because of social impairments. Socio-emotional cues are MUCH harder to pick up on during video calls - we can't see body language and we're working harder to read each other.
     
  4. The more people in a conversation, the harder it is to turn-take.
     
  5. Depending on the communication style of the other person e.g. if they're a big talker, you may never get a natural opportunity that arises to speak. 
     
  6. Turn-taking is easier and much clearer in certain contexts. E.g. if someone asks you a question in a conversation, it's a much more obvious that it's your turn to speak. Think about in a job interview. 
     
  7. Overlapping speech (people talking at the same time / over each other) happens in probably every conversation. Do an experiment and observe the next few conversations. 
     
  8. Autistic communication styles differ - we INFO-DUMP which impacts on traditional NT turn-taking.
A silhouette of a person which appears to be a woman has been edited so that her body is a photograph but her head has been painted blue with coloured cubes in her head, to represent the brain and the mind.
And finally...
Autistic people have so many demands impacting on the ability to take turns in a conversation. Executive functioning differences and anxiety make it MUCH harder to turn-take in the way NTs expect. Many autistic people have additional difficulties and are working so hard at integrating all the complex components of a having a conversation e.g. word-finding, sequencing, verbal reasoning, delayed processing, being overliteral. AND being constantly being triggered by the environment in any interaction (noise, people talking, music playing, crowded places, people bumping into you, flickering lights, distracting smells.