“The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all."
Pablo Casals

We don’t pay attention to good social skills

Think about it, you don’t really pay attention to good social skills. You only pay attention to bad social skills. You don’t notice everyone in the mall. You only notice the guy with blue spiked hair or the obnoxious group of teens enjoying themselves. A person has to do something that draws our attention because it wasn’t what we expected. When was the last time you said to someone “I really enjoyed our conversation. You remained on topic and used good eye contact?" We don’t say things like that because it is expected that you will. But if you make a social blunder in a presumed social-pragmatic communication rule, then those around you will immediately have negative thoughts about you. And if this blunder was their first impression of you, studies show it will require 8-12 consecutive good interactions with you before that impression is erased.

Know the rules before you get in the game

Body language, vocal tone, recognizing and expressing emotions, using appropriate conversation and communication skills all directly impact interpersonal relationships. Therapy for social-pragmatic communication skills is designed to target these areas in a meaningful manner. Therapy addresses three areas of social deficiency:

• Social Interaction

• Social Communication

• Social Emotional Regulation

Social Interaction

Social Interaction concentrates on developing interpersonal relationships – how to join in a group, being left out, the difference between requests and demands how to disagree, apologizing, fitting in, and caring/sharing.

Social Communication

Communication addresses initiating, maintaining, and ending a conversation; the different responsibilities between speakers and listeners, and what to do when things go wrong.

Social-Emotional Regulation

Social-Emotional Regulation focuses on recognizing emotional states in both yourself and in others, expressing your emotional state, and using self-control.

Theories impacting intervention

How many times have we heard the question "Why do they act that way?" While we may never truly know why, four major theories relative to social interaction may hold a clue. By looking at the individual's behavior using these four conceptual models, we may have a better starting place for intervention.

In John Elder Robison's wonderful book, Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger's, he describes an incident where he was on a playground and observed another child playing with a toy truck - but the child wasn't playing with the truck in the correct manner. So John decided to show the child how to correctly play with the truck and snatched it away from the other child without ever explaining what his intentions were. This caused the child to cry and John wanted to console the child. He remembered that his dog likes to be petted when upset, so he decided to pet the child. However, due to his difficulty with depth perception and motor planning, his "petting" was more like slapping which caused the child to cry even more. Remembering that he too, doesn't like to be touched by others (a sensory processing concern), he decided to use the nearby stick to pet the child. The teacher saw what was happening and punished John. In her eyes, John's behavior was viewed as abusive and punishment was swift in coming. However, in John's eyes, his behavior was an attempt at both instructing and consoling another child. Punishment would not "fix" the problem and it is likely that it would happen again.

If the teacher had attempted to view what John was doing using these theories as an attempt to understand his perspective, then more appropriate intervention could have been provided. Try to view the individual’s behavior in light of the following four theories as they may provide a different perspective on the reason behind the behavior. In almost all cases, what the individual is doing makes perfect sense to him/her and is an attempt to be social. However, what we see is often perceived by us as something entirely different – and in most cases described as inappropriate. By asking “What were you trying to do?” you may discover the individual’s true intent and avoid all the arguing.

The following four theories offer a description as to how they impact individuals with Social-Pragmatic Disorders.

Theory of Mind

For individuals with Theory of Mind (ToM) deficits, the ability to take on another person’s perspective is extremely difficult. They may not recognize that not everyone thinks like they do. Many often have an inability to realize their actions (or lack of actions) impact another person’s desire to want to be their friend (or why they do not want to be their friend).

Central Coherence

For individuals with Central Coherence deficits, the ability to integrate details into a bigger picture is difficult. They may have an inability to integrate information into the “Big Picture” and get consumed with details – especially with phrases like “You always…” Because all words are equally important they frequently have difficulty summarizing.

Executive Functions

Executive Functions are concerned with organization – how one processes, plans, and utilizes a procedure to complete a task. It may be seen in:

• Flexibility of Thought: can’t shift thoughts, change ideas, hyper-focus on specific topic

• Identification of Relevance: hyper-focus on details, can’t see the “Big Picture”

• Experiential Learning: inability to identify what works and what doesn’t, applying a skill to a new situation, seeing the similarity in one task in a new task

• Goal Focus: not realizing how long a task will really take to complete, not realizing how long one has been at a particular task at the expense of other tasks (was planning on getting to homework but played on computer too long)

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to perceive, identify, and manage emotions on a personal and social level. Manifestation in Personal Competence may be seen in 3 areas:

1. Reduced Self-Awareness:
• Inability to recognize one’s own emotions and their effects
• Inability to know one’s own strengths and limits
• Inability to be sure about one’s capabilities

2. Reduced Self-Regulation:
• Inability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses
• Inability to be honest
• Inability to be responsible for one’s own actions
• Inability to be flexible and open to new ideas

3. Reduced Self-Motivation:
• Inability to meet or exceed a standard of excellence
• Inability to embrace the goals of the group
• Inability to act on opportunities
• Inability to continue a goal despite setbacks

Manifestation in Social Competence may be seen in two areas:

1. Reduced Social-Awareness:
• Inability to recognize others’ feelings and perspectives
• Inability to anticipate, recognize, and meet the needs of others
• Inability to recognize what others need to enhance their abilities
• Inability to embrace multiculturalism to develop positive opportunities
• Inability to recognize a group’s emotional currents and power relationships.

2. Reduced Social-Skills:
• Inability to be an effective persuader
• Inability to express oneself clearly and effectively
• Inability to inspire and guide individuals and groups
• Inability to initiate changes in a positive manner
• Inability to negotiate and resolve differences
• Inability to nurture appropriate relations • Inability to collaborate and cooperate effectively

The Hazards of Evaluating Pragmatics When a Student Has Asperger Syndrome

The law is simple. An evaluation must be conducted in a manner that provides the necessary information to make a decision as to whether or not a child is a child with a disability. This places a responsibility on the diagnostician that goes far beyond “He scored this on the test.” According to IDEA (the law which governs public school special education), evaluation procedures are to be “…provided and administered … in the form most likely to yield accurate information on what the child knows and can do academically, developmentally, and functionally…” For many students diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, the reporting of standard scores fails to reflect the information demanded by the IDEA. “Functional,” according to the law, means nonacademic and encompasses the “routine activities of everyday living (Federal Register, 2006., p. 46629).

The goal of IDEA is “To ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living..” This requires the evaluator to assess all areas of disability and not just state test scores. IEP teams need to understand that the purpose of an IEP is to prepare children with disabilities for life after school. Hence, teaching children how to function in the world is just as important as teaching academic skills.

How then, does one assess functional ability? According to the Federal Register (2006, p. 46629) “…evaluation procedures used to measure a child’s functional skills must meet the same standards as all other evaluation procedures, consistent with § 300.304(c)(1).” This means any interpretation must provide valid and reliable measures.

In many instances, the diagnostician will be required to tailor the assessment in such a way as to assess specific areas of educational need. “Assessments are selected and administered so as best to ensure … the assessment results accurately reflect the child's aptitude or achievement level or whatever other factors the test purports to measure …” (IDEA). These results must be valid and reliable as information will be used as mandated in Section 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I) of the Act stipulating IEPs include a Functional Performance Statement.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is fully aware that “Formal testing may be useful for assessing the structure and form of language but may not provide an accurate assessment of an individual's use of language (i.e., pragmatics) (ASHA, 2015).” Published research cautions that formal testing of pragmatics has limited potential to reveal the typical pragmatic abnormalities in interaction (Adams, 2002; Geurts and Embrechts, 2010; Geurts, et al.; 2009; Koning and Magill-Evans, 2001; Laughlin, Wain, and Schmidgall, 2015). Therefore, can one report standard scores of pragmatic abilities and meet the IDEA requirement for validity and reliability?

Another concern is in the test environment. It is well known that children with Asperger syndrome perform better one-on-one with adults than with peers (Kowalski, 2002; Kowalski, 2011). Most testing is performed in a quiet environment free of distraction – a setting that is perfect for many students with Asperger syndrome to perform at their best. In addition, the testing often assesses cognitive knowledge of pragmatic skills in which the child identifies the correct choice when given 3-4 picture options. These are not functional pragmatics.

Perhaps one of the most complicated concepts of the IDEA ruling is that evaluations “Are administered by trained and knowledgeable personnel.” This places a burden on the evaluator to understand the inherent difficulties with respect to assessing students diagnosed with, or suspected of having, Asperger syndrome. The manner in which children use language in a social context is much more relevant in deciding if the child is a child with a disability than through traditionally assessed language areas (Russell, and Grizzle, 2008).

In short, if the child is isolated from his/her peers, either by choice or due to decisions made by others, and the basis for this isolation is due to how the child interacts, communicates, and emotionally self-regulates, then the child is demonstrating a functional disability as defined by the law. Ignoring this problem will not make it disappear. Those of us who have appropriate social skills never think about it. We acquired these skills by osmosis. We observed, imitated, and perfected them until we were competent. But children with Asperger syndrome need specific instruction on how to do that because what worked for us, simply doesn’t work for them.

Does your school or district need help with this population?

Our flexible learning solutions offer scalable K-12 educational supports for schools and districts. Committed to providing research-based, effective instructional programs as well as personnel resources necessary for staff development, intervention initiatives, program implementation, supplemental instruction, and extended day, we can help you develop effective educational programming to meet the unique needs of students with Asperger syndrome. Our job-embedded strategy for academic coaching is offered on multiple levels and can be integrated into both school and district scheduling for shorter or more extended time periods, depending on the needs of staff.

In addition, our unique flexibility allows us to support a school or district and expand its operational capacity and programming to fully meet the needs of both students and staff. All of our programs are customized to meet educators' current initiatives. If you are interested in learning how we can help you meet the needs of this population please contact us at 407-245-1026 or email us at mrtim@socialpragmatics.com.

Professional Communication Services, Inc.

Timothy P. Kowalski, M.A.,C.C.C.
1401 Edgewater Dr., Suite A  •  Orlando, FL 32804 • 407-245-1026