Our success in life is greatly determined by our social skills. We often take these skills for granted. Sometimes we are not even aware of these skills. It is easier to spot the absence of these skills, than to detect the presence of them. These skills are usually learned by observation. Many people with intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation), have underdeveloped social skills. This is because the development of social skills relies heavily on certain intellectual abilities.
Social skills enable people to function well in any social situation. This includes work, school, and interpersonal relationships. Some examples of good social skills include:
- Understanding and honoring the standards of dress and decorum at different social occasions;
- The acceptable forms of social interaction for different social occasions;
- Knowing when to make eye contact and when to avert the eyes;
- Determining when physical contact is acceptable and what type (e.g. a handshake versus a hug);
- Being able to politely start and stop conversations;
- Being able to make small talk;
- Understanding how to notice and respond to non-verbal body language;
- Appreciating social nuance such as sarcasm and humor;
- Understanding the differences between literal and figurative speech;
- Being able to express feelings and respond to the feelings of others.
Social skills are closely linked with language and communications skills. Effective communication involves the accurate use and interpretation of both verbal and nonverbal communication. It includes the ability to understand non-literal, figurative speech. For example, the weather is a popular way to make small talk. Suppose someone steps into an elevator and says, "It's raining cats and dogs out there." People might begin to nod or laugh with amusement. However, someone with an ID might become horrified. They might begin crying imagining cats and dogs dropping from the sky. They do not understand this non-literal figure of speech.
Good social skills also require behavioral management skills. For example, impulses must be kept under control across a wide variety of social situations. Self-care and grooming skills must be demonstrated. People with IDs often need to be explicitly taught behavioral management skills. For instance, they must learn to refrain from talking out of turn. They also need to speak at the appropriate volume when conversing. When provided direction, they learn to follow rules and social conventions. For example, with proper coaching, they know it is correct to wait in line to purchase a ticket.
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Social skills are taught in a kinesthetic manner. This means that individuals learn by doing. They repeatedly practice proper social interactions in a step-by-step manner. The process of repetition helps solidify social skills. Examples of this stepwise learning are provided in the Applied Behavioral Analysis section.
Social skills must be learned in a social environment. Therefore, social skills training is usually conducted in a social skills training group. These groups usually include two or more professional instructors and peer support specialists. Peer support specialists are people with ID who have mastered these skills. They serve in the role of coach.
First, instructors and coaches introduce a social skill. Then, they demonstrate the skill through a role-play activity. Students are provided familiar examples. This helps students connect the learning to their own everyday experiences. It provides a reference point.
When skills are first introduced, they are practiced in a classroom. The classroom provides a safe learning environment. Here, they can make mistakes and receive corrective feedback. They are rewarded for correct responses. Role-played interactions are similar to real-life. Usually the learning experience is generalized to real-life situations.
Students are given homework assignments. They are asked to note and record real-life experiences that required the skills they learned. They may be asked to demonstrate how they handled the situation. Students are also encouraged to discuss real-life experiences that challenged them. The instructors use these experiences as teaching points. They guide the class to practice solutions to these problematic social interactions.
After students demonstrate some mastery of the skill, they begin to practice the skill in the real world. For example, the instructors may demonstrate getting into an elevator with a stranger. The stranger is standing near the buttons that select the floors. The stranger turns and asks, "Where ya going?" Obviously, this does not literally mean, "What is your ultimate destination?" It means, "What floor do you want?" However, many people with IDs interpret questions literally. They might blurt out, "I'm going to the doctor because I have diarrhea." With training, they learn the stranger isn't interested in those details.
After mastering the basic elevator scenario, the instructors increase the complexity. They may demonstrate the same scenario with a twist. What if someone asks the same question but isn't standing by the floor selection buttons? Students learn environmental cues serve to determine the meaning of a communication.
The role-playing and rehearsal process is usually the most difficult part. It requires students to demonstrate the skills that the instructors have modeled. The instructors guide the students during rehearsal. Students are provided immediate feedback. This helps students gain confidence in their abilities.
Instructor feedback is typically positive in nature. They praise and reward the students' efforts. The instructors do not criticize students who have difficulty with a skill. Instead, they correctly model the desired skill again. With repetition, practice, and support the students' gain mastery and confidence.