Helping Autistic Children to Become Social Communicators

All autism therapies lead to the goal of socialization

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Why Social Communication is So Important

Whatever their names, founders, descriptors or philosophies, the purpose of virtually all autism-specific treatments is....  socialization.

Socialization is not the same thing as "social skills."  It is much bigger than that.  It is, essentially, the process of teaching a human being how to live in a world of other human beings.  It starts at birth, with holding, eye contact, babbling and speech, and continues almost all day, every day, for the rest of our lives.

  Whether we're hanging out with friends, going to school, working, playing, reading or watching TV, playing sports, singing, eating... we are experiencing some aspect of socialization.

Children who are deprived of the opportunity to be socialized (children who are isolated due to abuse, extreme forms of institutionalization, etc.) never learn to understand or use the basic tools of human interaction: speech, touch, body language, etc.  If you're the parent of a child with autism, you may recognize that your child has some of the symptoms of isolation, even though he/she has not been physically isolated.  The isolation, in the case of autism, comes from the inside out.

Is Social Communication About Behaviors or Emotional Connectedness?

How do you help a child who is self-isolated to become socialized?  Different autism-specific treatments start with different ideas about the goals of socialization - and thus they approach the process differently.

Is socialization really all about learning and following a specific set of rules and structures, in order to facilitate education, employment, trust and mutual safety?  If so, then simply teaching and reinforcing the rules may be the best way to socialize a child.  Behaviorists believe strongly in this approach, and they call it Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) or many other similar names.

Is socialization really all about becoming "more human," so that you can share and enjoy the fruits of fellowship, culture and interpersonal relationships?  If so, then developing emotional reciprocity is at the heart of the socializing process.  Developmental psychologists generally lean in this direction, and they call their approaches Floortime, RDI, and many similar names.

Of course, most people would say "don't be silly: socialization isn't just about behavior, nor is it just about relationships.  It incorporates both, and we should teach both!"  And most people would be absolutely right.

Why We Need Both Behavioral and Emotional Therapies

Which begs the question "why are we separating behavioral and relationship training, and teaching either/or, when both/and would be the best option for our kids?"  That is: why are we as parents asked to choose between intensive behavioral therapy OR intensive developmental therapy, when our kids so clearly need both?

In recent years there has been some merging of behaviorism and developmentalism through programs that incorporate, for example, ABA in naturalistic settings, or Social Stories as a tool for learning behaviors.

  Such programs, however, remain relatively rare, are often of poor quality, and can be tough to find.

The answer appears to be more financial than it is practical.  Individual practitioners and researchers have developed their own quite literally trademarked autism therapies, and they are in the business of selling those therapies to parents, schools and medical insurers.  Whether it's Social Stories, RDI, Floortime, VLBA, SCERTS, TEACCH or any other autism-specific therapy, it is owned and operated by a group or groups of therapists who are in business not only to help our kids but ALSO to make a name for themselves and (by the way) to create and own a product.  You can't sell a product if it's not clearly defined as distinct from its competitors (imagine selling Pepsi as "really very similar to Coke")!  Even ABA, which is not "owned" in the same sense that some other therapies are owned, is presented in a packaged form by many organizations who build, for example, ABA software, ABA videos, and so forth.

While there's nothing wrong with creating and selling a legitimate therapeutic tool, nor is there anything wrong in making a name for oneself, it does put parents into a real bind.

How do we cross the divide, so that our children (and adults) can gain the broadest possible benefits of socialization?  So far, it ain't easy.  Parents must mix and match, experiment with therapies and therapists, and often shell out considerable money to therapy providers in order to put together a comprehensive program of socialization.  Meanwhile, of course, we parents must be very, very careful in how and who we choose to work with our kids.  No matter how important socialization may be, none of us (I hope!) are in the market for punitive measures, robotic responses or learned scripts.  What we're hoping for, for our kids, is that they are able to internalize and then use the tools of socialization to help themselves build the richest, most successful lives possible.

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