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by Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW

A recent report from the World Economic Forum highlights the top ten skills that will be required to be employable in 2020.  Granted this is only two years away however there are some noticeable differences from the 2015 list.   While all of the skills listed in the 2020 list could fall under the umbrella of social cognitive skills several stand out in particular.  These include:

-People Management
-Coordinating with others
-Emotional Intelligence
-Negotiation
-Cognitive Flexibility

These five skills in particular often do not develop naturally in individuals who present with social learning challenges often associated with ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome and related challenges.  Furthermore, these skills do not simply develop to the same degree  in children and teens who are diagnosed with mild neurodevelopmental challenges, they need to be taught. 

Learning  how to understand other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions, understanding how you come across to others and developing the cognitive flexibility to work successfully as part of a group fall under the umbrella of social thinking skills.  Social thinking skills as defined by Michelle Garcia Winner, the creator of Social Thinking® requires one to think in a social context and apply skills relevant to the situation.   

While most parents contact me because their child is struggling with developing or maintaining friendships I explain to parents that my goal is to help students develop the social thinking skills they will need to be employable one day.  

A 2013 study done by Aparajita Kuriyan and associates found the following outcomes for young adults with ADHD between the ages of 23 and 32:

  • They are 11 times more likely to be unemployed and not in school.
  • They are 4 times more likely to be in unskilled vs. clerical occupation, and 6 times more likely to be in unskilled vs. professional occupations.
  • 61% more likely to have ever been fired, compared to 43% of the comparison group.
  • 33% more likely to have ever been laid off, compared to 13% of the comparison group.
  • 53% more likely to have ever quit a job due to dislike, compared to 36% of the comparison group.
  • They earned close to $2 per hour less in wages than the comparison group.

The research on individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s and higher-verbal ASD shows a higher percentage of individuals who do not complete college, are underemployed as well as unemployed.

While this study did not look specifically at the role of social cognitive skills I believe it is safe to assume that lagging social thinking skills is a strong variable in this data. 

I often suggest to parents to spend more time focusing on helping their child develop their social thinking skills, resiliency and cognitive flexibility and less time worrying about grades as grades and IQ scores are not an accurate indicator of future success.

As many parents have learned, social skills groups often teaching scripted, socially appropriate behaviors rather than helping students understand the “bigger picture” of the skills they will require to be employable one day.   When I teach social thinking skills I emphasize to students of all ages that we are working on developing skills that are required to help them not only to connect with similar-age peers but to be employable one day.  

Learn more about the work we do at:

Center for ADHD (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania) and 
Ride the Wave Counseling & Coaching (Linwood, New Jersey)

Social Thinking is the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLP.  Learn more at: www.socialthinking.com

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We are living in a time when we are inundated with information, from the 24-hour news cycle to social media, notifications on our smartphones, etc.  It has becoming increasingly easier for us to form an opinion based on an attention-grabbing headline or “click bait” than it is to take the time to read an article or watch something that doesn’t fit into the narrow parameters of the Internet/TV news formula. 

Last week, a student I work with was suspended for making a comment to another student that falls under his school’s sexual harassment parameters.  This young man handled the situation beautifully by taking responsibility for his comment and accepting the consequence for his poor choice of words.  When he explained to me what had happened he explained that the student whom he made the remark to often makes (inappropriate) comments and jokes to him which he reciprocates.  He considered this student to be his friend however this student decided to tell a teacher what my client had said which led to his suspension.   When I asked him if he explained to his principal what led up to his making this comment he said he had not.   

 I emphasized to him why it is never appropriate to make jokes of a sexual nature in school I asked him why he did not explain to his principal the fact that he and this other student frequently make jokes of a sexual nature back and forth.  He stated that it had not occurred to him to explain the full story.  This did not surprise me as this young man has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and like many individuals with social learning challenges such as ADHD, Asperger’s and higher-verbal ASD he lacks an understanding of context.  

Dr. Peter Vermeulen, a psychologist from Belgium coined the term context blindness to describe the way people on the autism spectrum lack an understanding of context. Many individuals diagnosed with ADHD whom I work with also have difficulty understanding context (understanding themes, summarizing, taking the “bigger picture” into consideration) thus I do not believe that context blindness is strictly limited to those on the autism spectrum.

If someone has social learning challenges, they likely have difficulty understanding context.  Their brains tend to focus on details and they have difficulty looking at the *bigger picture which is why we need to place an emphasis on teaching them context.   Given that we are living in a time when context has taken a backseat to headlines, learning how to understand context is not just important it is essential to developing critical thinking skills and social competency.

Teaching context is something that must happen at home, in school and in any social situation.   I will sometimes explain this concept to kids as understanding the “who, what, when, why, how” of a story or situation.   Typically, I explain it as “the bigger picture”.

When speaking with your kids, regardless if they have a social learning challenge or not take the time to teach them this critical life skill.  You will be helping them to learn how to think critically while also teaching them that not everything in life can be simplified to a headline or click bait.

by Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW

*The term “bigger picture” comes from the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition created by Michelle Garcia Winner, creator of Social Thinking.  Learn more by visiting: www.socialthinking.com

Learn more about the work we do teaching context at:

www.centeradhd.com (Bryn Mawr, PA)
www.ridethewavecounseling.com (Linwood, NJ)

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My son Austin (like many of the kids I work with) has no interest in sports.  Monday morning before he left for school I gave him this advice:

People are going to be happy today about the Eagles winning the Super Bowl, this is a really big deal.  If anyone asks you if you watched the game or makes a comment about it you need to smile, look friendly and say “I was watching other stuff on TV but it’s cool that they won.  My neighbors woke me up with fireworks”.

As I have explained to him before and continue to reinforce with him-people make small talk around sports to be friendly, particularly other males.   It is your responsibility to show your friendly by responding to them in a way that will appear friendly, even if you’re not really interested in what they’re talking about.  This is called doing a “social fake” meaning you fake your interest for the sake of others and respond in a way that validates the persons emotions.

Teaching human relatedness through responding to others experiences and emotions is critical to learning how to be relatable to others.  Being relatable is what helps other’s feel comfortable and motivates them to take an interest in us. Teaching “social skills” without teaching how to relate to other’s emotions and experiences is essentially teaching scripted social behaviors.

Teaching how to do a “social fake” is an amalgamation of various social thinking skills including:

Perspective Taking: We think about other’s thoughts/feelings and what they need from us in social communication. If someone tells us something sad, they expect us to respond with some degree of empathy.  If someone tells us something enthusiastically they expect us to respond with a level of interest or excitement.

Showing an interest in others:  Many kids with social learning challenges such as ADHD and particularly Asperger’s and higher-verbal autism lack a natural curiosity about others thus they often do not express an interest in others.  Teaching them to show an interest in similar-age peers teaches them reciprocity in relationships and emphasizes that they are accountable to their peers in social communication.

Listening to others:  Many kids with social learning challenges are what Michelle Garcia Winner, the creator of Social Thinking refers to as “information informers” meaning they like to share their vast knowledge about their interests and want others to listen to them yet they rarely listen to others when the topic of conversation is not within the realm of their restricted interests.

Teaching how to do a “social fake” also includes sometimes lying for the sake of keeping others comfortable.  For example, you have probably taught your child that if they receive a present they don’t like they should say they do like it because we would not want to hurt the feelings of the person who gave the present. 

How you can help your child learn how to improve their relatability to others:

  1. Teach contexts in which you expect them to do a social fake and what they should both look and sound like when they do a social fake. As an example:

Tonight, we’re going to Aunt Sue’s house.  There may be something for dinner than you don’t like.  If she askes you if you like dinner you should say “Yes, it’s good”.  You should smile when you say this to her.  If she asks you why you didn’t eat more, you can say “I ate a lot today”.  It’s O.K. to not be truthful because you don’t want to hurt her feelings and you want to show that you appreciate her inviting you over.

  1. Help them to understand age-appropriate responses to when people share information with them. This is of critical importance because much social skills instruction teaches social communication skills that are overly formal and not organic to the ways kids relate to each other.  As an example:  When you get to school today you can ask Josh what he got for his birthday.  When he tells you can respond by saying “that’s cool” and ask him a few questions about one of the gifts he mentions.

We form relationships with others because they show an interest in us, we feel comfortable with them because we find them relatable and because there is a level of fluency in our spontaneous conversations.   If you consistently focus on teaching relatability your child will be on the path to cultivating friendships organically.

Learn more about how we teach social thinking skills at our website: www.centeradhd.com

Learn about Social Thinking at their website: www.socialthinking.com  

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Get ADHD Answers by Center For Adhd - 1y ago

Over the years I have probably taken several hundred kids diagnosed with ADHD, learning differences and related challenges on day and overnight trips.   Through these experiences I’ve become hyper vigilant about parking lots (with streets a close second).

Why parking lots?   Many, if not most of the kids I’ve worked with lack situational awareness meaning they are not always attuned to their surroundings.   Individuals diagnosed with ADHD and related challenges have difficult with what is called gestalt processing.  Their brains have difficulty organizing various pieces of information, putting them together as a whole and understanding the “bigger picture”.   Individual with ADHD, Asperger’s and some learning differences tend to focus on details rather than concepts or themes.  So how does this relate to parking lots? 

If someone struggles with gestalt processing, they will struggle with situational awareness.   Think about the degree to which situational awareness is required in your typical supermarket parking lot.  To be safe in a parking lot we must consider the following simultaneously:

  • When opening the car door being aware of the car next to you as well as people who may be walking by.
  • What direction am I heading and how do I need to get to my desired destination
  • What is behind me and what is coming towards me
  • To be aware of people who may be backing out of a parking space by looking at the taillights of cars you are about to walk past
  • Adjusting our level of attentiveness based on the day of the week, time of day, etc.

Most of us never consciously think of these steps because we do them intuitively and our brains are able to organize and interpret all this information simultaneously.

Difficulty with gestalt processing or situational awareness, like all social learning challenges has almost nothing to do it intelligence, rather, it is a weakness in executive functioning. 

Not only does situational awareness keep us safe, it allows us to attend to our environment and then decide what we’re supposed to be doing based on the context of the situation at that given moment.

How can you help your child develop greater situational awareness:
1. Make them put down their electronic devices when you’re out in public.  If your attention is focused on a screen you’re not taking your environment into consideration. If your child is getting close to driving age I suggest having them not use their phone in the car, so they can learn how to pay attention to getting places by car.  Some kids have a natural skill with directions, but many do not.

2. When in a parking lot ask them what do they need to be aware of while walking through the parking lot. Help fill in the blanks they’re missing. It’s important for them to know that often drivers in a parking lot are not using situational intelligence because they’re distracted thus they need to be extra vigilant while in parking lots.

3. Help them to understand the “bigger picture” of the environment as they will likely focus on details of interest or just not pay attention if there’s nothing visually interesting to them.

Learn more about the work we do to help kids improve their situational awareness by visiting our website: www.centeradhd.com

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Social Skills for Boys: Teaching Boys to Communicate Like Boys - YouTube
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Social Learning Challenges: Difficulty learning social information intuitively which may include:

Difficulty with perspective taking (understanding other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions and understanding how you come across to others)

  • Lack of situational awareness aka “reading a room”
  • Has a hard time initiating and ending conversations appropriately
  • Weakness in using their language to relate to other’s experiences
  • Tendency to focus on small or irrelevant details and difficulty getting “the bigger picture”
  • Can have strong decoding skills but appears to have trouble with reading comprehension around inferencing, explaining the main idea, etc.

Social Anxiety-Two Types

  1. World-Based Social Anxiety
  • Avoids social interaction outside of the family and structured activities
  • Propensity to say “no” to anything new or speak negatively of new experiences
  • May gravitate towards adults who they find more predictable or younger kids who they do not find threatening
  • Often misinterpreted as being shy or oppositional
  • Most common with Asperger’s and higher-verbal autism
  1. Experience-Based Social Anxiety
  • Anxiety is specific to interacting with similar-age peers, may find it easier to speak to adults or younger kids because of past, unsuccessful social experiences with peers
  • Tends to become more pronounced during middle school
  • Very common with those who mainly present with inattentive ADHD as well as those with slow processing or expressive language delays

Suggested Interventions

Social Learning Challenges: Start with individual sessions with a *social learning specialist to learn basic concepts and put social learning in a relevant context for the individual.  Can do a group simultaneously or after individual sessions end. 

Word-Based Social Anxiety: Start with individual sessions, possibly move to small (2-3 total) group when ready.   Moving forward will depend on the individuals level of social motivation once they learn to manage their social anxiety better.

Experienced-Based Social Anxiety: Individual or small-group followed by group.

Both Social Learning Challenges and Social Anxiety: Start with individual sessions focused on developing strategies to manage social anxiety.  Gradually move into learning social learning concepts.   Can do a group after social anxiety has been adequately addressed.

*A social learning specialist is an individual who has received training in teaching social learning concepts.   A social learning specialist may have a background in special education, speech-language pathology, social work, etc.    Running a social skills group does not automatically make someone a social learning specialist.   Visit https://www.socialthinking.com/Clinical%20Training for a list of individuals who have completed the Social Thinking Clinical Training program.

Learn about our social anxiety groups and How to Hang Out program for boys starting in February at: www.centeradhd.com

Social Thinking and Superflex are the work of Michelle Garcia Winner.  Learn more at: http://www.socialthinking.com

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Josh, a 6-year-old goes up to a group of boys playing in his classroom and says, “May I join you?”

Tyler, a 13-year-old gives a boy in his grade a compliment about his clothing.  The boy becomes verbally aggressive towards Tyler because he feels embarrassed.

Eric, a 15-year-old meets another 15-year-old boy and starts the conversation by asking “What are your hobbies?”

Frank, a 12-year-old greets another boy in his class by saying “Hi Mike how are you doing?”

What’s the problem with these scenarios?

This is not how boys communicate with each other, yet this is what boys are being taught in social skills groups.

In most social skills groups boy learn:

  • overly formal etiquette that is not appropriate for their age or gender
  • to disregard the “hidden rules” in male-male communication
  • how to sound like adult women when they communicate socially

Most importantly, they’re not learning how to be relatable to other boys

What compounds the problem with how social skills are being taught:

  • most social skills instruction is teaching scripted, socially appropriate behaviors or uses behavior modification to elicit socially acceptance responses. There is no emphasis on teaching relatability to similar-age peers
  • Social Thinking® terminology and characters are being taught without teaching foundational Social Thinking concepts
  • kids are grouped together by age, regardless of their social learning needs or cognitive ability
  • there are no standards or criteria for what qualifies someone to teach social skills. Anyone can run a social skills group
  • parents don’t know what questions to ask social skills providers

What led to my interest about this topic:

  • many boys and young men I’ve worked with attended social skills group, often for years where they were taught to initiate conversation and communicate in ways that were not organic to the way boys/young men communicate with each other.
  • they were taught how to sound appropriate engaging in conversations with adults however they sound awkward and unrelatable to their similar-age male peers.
  • I found that no boys were ever taught what being relatable to their similar-age peers looks like.
  • the realization that the vast majority of people who teach social skills to boys and young men are women who understandably never experienced being part of a male peer group.

To be relatable to their similar-age peers, boys with social learning challenges need to be taught:

  • how boys relate to each other with their language and how they show affection for each other
  • understand the hidden rules of male-male social communication
  • be able to discern between well-intentioned teasing and actual bullying.

Being relatable is what helps others feel comfortable around us and what makes us endearing to others which in turn helps increase one’s ability to be employable.    Acquiring “social skills” aren’t very helpful if you’re not employable to others because they don’t feel comfortable around you.

What I teach during individual sessions and in small groups:

  • The hidden rules and nuances in male-male social communication
  • How to use your language to be relatable to other boys
  • Understanding when other boys are showing an interest in being friends with you
  • How to age-appropriately show other boys that you want to be friends
  • How to adjust one’s social communication based on whom you’re communicating with
  • Understanding what constitutes natural sound social communication between boys and what causes you to sound like you walked out of a social skills group.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, PA and Linwood, NJ.  Learn more at: www.centeradhd.com

Coming soon: A new online learning program for parents at www.socialskillsforboys.com  
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Often I find that boys who present with social learning challenges such as Aspergers, higher-verbal autism, learning differences and to a lesser extent, ADHD have trouble understanding other boys intentions when they’re trying to be friendly towards them.

Here I am at teaching an 8th grader diagnosed with Asperger’s how to understand when boys in his class are genuinely being friendly towards him.

I believe that learning how to be relatable is as important or more important than social competency because being relatable is what makes us endearing to are similar-age peers. Learn more about our unique approach to social learning from a male perspective at our website CenterADHD.com


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