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Is social skills training actually a lesson in masking?

I have been interested in social skills training for as many years as I can remember. I have poured over research, read articles and books, watched YouTube clips, all in an effort to understand the complexity of this set of skills which develop without effort for a large portion of the population. I have carried out my own research, sought feedback from my clients and their parents and strive to always provide a progressive, individualised service. I have encountered children and teens who are adept at masking and have lifted their veil to discuss these issues, but never did I sit and consider if my "training" was in fact creating these masks which so many autistic children develop. Could my work be backfiring and creating an equally distressing difficulty?

This idea was presented to me when I read the outline of a course another group were offering to parents and teachers. I truly believe that knowledge is power, so I love to see courses being available for the empowerment of parents, children, adults and professionals. I was reading an outline when I saw the sentence "traditional social skills training teaches children to mimic non autistic behaviour. Recent research has shown how damaging this is". Those two sentences stopped me in my tracks and made me think. I have to admit, they made me more than think, it felt as if my professional career was flashing before my eyes. I was suddenly questioning everything I had ever worked on and trying to ascertain if my work had possibly caused a child to mask and hide who they are.

As I let the words wash over me another few times, my mind began to slow and I began to evaluate my own practice. I am firm believer in Scott Bellini's first tenet of Social Skills Programming, which states that "individuals on the spectrum want to establish meaningful social relationships". Even when I have encountered children who are so reluctant to engage, I have kept this at the heart of my work and searched for a way to reach them and draw them into conversation or silent interaction. I take an individualised approach with every child. I have not pulled them kicking and screaming into my social world but tried to meet them in theirs, acknowledging and discussing their interests, likes and dislikes. Once there, I try to find teachable moments, pointing out the social ramifications of comments and actions. I help them to interpret my reaction and offer alternatives which will illicit a more favourable response. Is this teaching them to mask?

Let's for a minute consider the word "training". This word I do have an issue with. It brings to mind animal tricks and military drills. It does not illicit any positive imagery or fill me with a feeling of growth and development, yet it is the word I reach for each time I describe what I do. So what is the alternative? Should I use teaching? Social Skills Teaching. While this brings imagery of a classroom and growth, it stops short of giving me a positive feeling. It feels starchy and somewhat less individual. My work is individualised, that is something I am passionate about, so this word still does not sit right with me. So how about "Social skill instruction"? I almost think this one is worse. I'm back to military imagery and lack of cognisance of individual needs and wants. I've given this much thought in the last few days and the only word that seems to sit comfortably with me is development. This word seems to bring with it imagery of progress and blossoming of skills and while I still don't consider it the perfect description, it does sit far better with me than any of the a fore mentioned words.

So, in my review of my own practice, I am now sitting firmly with my core intent to further the development of skills in an individualised manner. The next thing I have to consider is if the skills I am choosing are socially valid for the individual, or are they only socially valid to the wider neurotypical community? If they are only valid to the neurotypical community, then perhaps it is just a way of supporting masking regardless of my best intentions.

My PALS (Personal and Life skills)programme has been running in the Shine Centre for 11 years now, and has proved very successful in both quantative and qualitative measures. The limited nature of this programme brought us to imagine a platform to allow any child access it, and so the Kloog, Social Skills for Autism trilogy of apps were born. They allow the user to experience parts of the PALS programme, albeit in a limited fashion. This app series has been downloaded 172,000 times across the globe and I receive emails regularly from parents and professionals who are using them around the globe. The premise behind the Kloog character, is that he is an alien from the planet Zoogopolis, who was embarking on a holiday when he crash landed on planet Earth. Our social customs and norms confused him but he needed our help to fix his ship and return to his home planet. The idea for this came to me when I was preparing to embark on a trip to Dubai. I was aware that the culture and customs were far different to my own and I was trying to gather as much information as possible regarding the do's and don'ts. I felt alien in this culture and sought to understand how best to navigate it without causing offence. This best describes my professional and personal approach to developing social skills. I did not seek to change who I am when venturing outside of my culture but I knew that I needed to understand the culture and the social and perhaps even legal ramifications of my actions while there. If we fail to equip children with the social practices and comprehension which is common place in this neurotypical world, then we are failing them. They cannot expect to be successfully social if they don't know or understand the game everyone else is playing.

Bellini's third tenet states that "successful social behaviours are not always appropriate behaviours". For me, this is the most important of his five tenets. I seek to teach children to comprehend behaviours which are in keeping with their peer group. Helping them to understand why their peers act certain ways. I am not seeking to teach cutlery placement or table etiquette. These skills are manners, a subset of social skills and should never be the main focus of social skill development.

When addressing any social skills I seek for the child to gain understanding of the why. From the why, we can discuss the what (behaviour) and the who (persons involved). The why though is the most important part, as this explains people's reactions and the ramifications of the child's behaviour. This is the key to true change as the comprehension offers an opportunity for working awareness and altering of behaviour. Having afforded this hours of thought, I fail to see how this can constitute masking. The child has the choice to choose their behaviour in response, having the understanding of how their behaviour will be received and future ramifications that may result. I do not use scripting when working with children, at most I suggest comments or responses but they are also encouraged to come up with their own. It is up to the child themselves the response they give, having the ability to anticipate the results. I did not mask who I was when I travelled, I simply altered my behaviour when I did not want an unfavourable outcome. Knowledge is power and my preparation had placed me well to enjoy my time and also remain respectful of the culture.

This brings me to my final conundrum relating to this question. Is it respectful of autistic culture to present these alternatives? Should we as a culture not just accept the direct communication which is favoured by the autistic community?

As someone who has worked with hundreds of autistic children and teens over the years, I am very appreciative of their often overly direct communication. I favour this type of communication and I always know where I stand with my students. The difficulty is, that outside of my office, a large proportion of the public are neurotypical and value a less direct approach, overly mindful of their communicative partners feelings. I have spoken of this previously in my posts and I truly believe that we can learn from each other and find mutually beneficial social ways. However, I do feel that this is a long way off, so while we work on awareness and acceptance, this type of work is incredibly necessary for our children and teens. I do believe there is a future which is mutually respectful, but I also think it will most likely be after my lifetime as culture has demonstrated how snail like it can be to change in this area.

Having weighed up my professional philosophy and considering my practice, I have to say that I have come to the conclusion that I am not promoting masking in my students. I am the first to admit that not all social skills programmes are born equal and some have more merit than others. In this respect I can see that social scripting and directive, constrictive teaching would no doubt add pressure to an individual to mask who they are, without being provided with the most important factors, the "why" and "choice". However, to brand all social skills programmes with the same brush does nothing but discount programmes without proper evaluation. I have taken a stance professionally that I do not, and will never, publicly trash another therapists work. I believe that this type of behaviour does not add anything to the field, and it does not serve any positive purpose. It does not make my work more valid. I seek validation from my clients and families. Their opinion of my service and practices are what concerns me, and I am grateful for their honesty in every session.

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