If you provide counseling services to clients who have autism, or any of several other mental health conditions, at some point you will inevitably work with them on social skills. And if you are like many of the practitioners I know, you have a sizeable collection of the various resources and materials available to support work on social skills. Why shouldn’t you? The works of Jed Baker, Michelle Garcia Winner and Carol Gray, among others, are full of insightful and engaging techniques to help polish interpersonal skills.
The challenge for many clinicians is how to fit these various curriculums into a world filled with Instagram, Facebook and the dreaded Snapchat. To update an old saying, this isn’t your father’s social world.
The bulk of most social skills curriculums are appropriately focused on “in-person” social skills. Issues such as personal space, body language, conversational cues and job interview skills still offer overwhelming challenges for some individuals with special needs. But the social norms found in everyday interactions are further complicated by rapidly evolving technologies and social media platforms. Effective social skills instruction needs to reflect this reality and the changing norms that accompany these rules. If we are going to teach social skills effectively, our curriculums must reflect the unwritten rules of the 21st century.
Anecdotally, I have found that clients benefit from the same instructional strategies that are used with more traditional social skills training programs. Visual supports, direct instruction, role-plays, social cognition exercises and other strategies can still work to address Facebook faux pas, Snapchat social rules and email etiquette. However, such difficulties cannot just be added in on the fly. Because smartphones and tablets are fully integrated into today’s world, they also need to be fully integrated into any robust social skills curriculum.
The art of the ‘selfie’
Although “selfies” are a popular part of youth culture, and a tempting means for socially awkward youth to engage with their social world, the wrong type of selfie can sabotage a youth’s reputation, or worse, compromise his or her safety.
A social skills instructor might help a client recognize some of the unwritten social rules of selfies:
- Don’t post more than one selfie in a day
- Try to post selfies only at exciting new events
- When possible, try to include other people in your selfie
Social media savvy
The time is gone when social skills instructors could easily redirect residents away from computers and toward the day-to-day challenges of social interactions. Social media use is now a regular part of most cultures, and the socially awkward youth cannot easily avoid the world of social media. At the same time, social media can be a source of challenges such as cyberbullying, Internet safety issues and other difficulties that are beyond the scope of this article.
With that said, there are some ways that social media savvy can be combined with common social skills lessons:
- When doing a lesson plan on hygiene/fashion and reputation, have students show or draw their Facebook profiles for feedback from the group.
- When discussing conversational skills such as active listening, discuss how these rules apply to online conversations.
- When discussing boundaries, bring up such issues as what sorts of comments should go on a public wall, how often to “like” someone else’s pictures and similar issues related to conversational boundaries.
Politeness, self-advocacy, follow-through, conciseness and other important social skills do not stop at the Internet’s door. When working with students on social skills, it might be helpful to support them by offering email etiquette lessons.
- When running a lesson on “think before you speak,” suggest that students find a point person to run sensitive emails by before sending them.
- When facilitating a discussion about self-advocacy, discuss how to practice self-advocacy in an email.
- When discussing conversational skills such as manners, touch on how to incorporate these skills in email communications.
Let’s talk texting
At some point, many socially awkward young people get involved in tricky texting situations. Some do not recognize the challenges that can come along with “sexting.” For others, the challenges of dealing with unrequited love via text can be too much. A social skills instructor can:
- Discuss texting styles
- Help students understand what types of conversations should happen via text
- Discuss the frequency of texting as it applies to different types of relationships, such as friends, teachers and other social roles
Between the time this article was written and posted, online social norms might have evolved dozens of times. But this only underscores the importance of being intentional about incorporating technology etiquette into social skills work. So sit down, pull out your social skills curriculum and ask yourself …“Is my social skills curriculum ready for the 21st century?”
Aaron McGinley is student member of the American Counseling Association living in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to serving as a social skills consultant at Beacon Transitions, an independent living program for young adults, he works as a clinical intern at Caring Alternative as he completes his work toward a clinical mental health counseling degree at Montreat College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: Aaron McGinley gave a TED Talk on this topic in September 2016. See the video at https://youtu.be/26EJ5D5Zf0A