From October 25, 2009
I have always been a fan of Amelia Bedelia. She’s a character in a children’s book, and she takes life very literally. My favorite scene in one of her books occurred when she was playing baseball. She was on third base, and the next batter hit the ball. Her teammates told her to run home, so Amelia Bedelia ran to her house. Little did I know back when I was first reading about Amelia’s escapades that many of the children I work with live life much like Amelia’s character.
Children with social reasoning difficulties often communicate very literally. Hidden meanings, inferences, or sarcasm are quite confusing. In addition, they do not understand idioms. If you told a child with social reasoning difficulties that you had a green thumb, she might very well grab your hand to check it out. If the weatherman said it would be “raining cats and dogs,” this child might stare out the window all day waiting for the first animal to fall from the sky. Children with Bipolar Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Seizure Disorder, and some with Attention Deficit Disorder struggle with understanding some of the social nuances that we come to understand as we mature.
How does this play out socially?
Children, or adults, for that matter, who see life in its most simple terms, very factually and literally, expect people to respond in a very predictable manner. The child with social reasoning difficulties often experiences anxiety, confusion, frustration, and feels annoyed when people don’t respond as expected.
Since thinking is so literal and concrete, statements feel like promises, and disappointment is often felt when those statements don’t happen. There are very few, if any, gray areas. If a parent tells a child that “we will try to get to the toy store,” but it turns out there isn’t enough time to go, the child feels let down because he heard it as a fact.
There is an inability to generalize information to other, similar situations. The child walks into many of his experiences without any preparation or understanding of what will happen, creating high anxiety. A child who learns to cope with life as a fourth grader is panicked at entry into fifth grade. She doesn’t use her prior knowledge to predict how her day will be.
When a situation has passed, talking about ‘what happened’ doesn’t really make sense because the experience has ended. While understanding how she dealt with an issue, what she can do differently next time, and how others reacted makes perfect sense to us, the child with social reasoning difficulties doesn’t make the connection between past and future experiences.
Some children want to have friendships, but don’t understand the social rules that go along with it. The child with social reasoning difficulties doesn’t have awareness of some of the basic friendship necessities, such as staying on topic, talking about mutual interests, taking turns, using eye contact, or attending to nonverbal cues.
How can we help teach social understanding?
The key to success is patience, understanding, and teaching. While typically developing children pick up on these lessons through life experiences, children with social learning difficulties don’t naturally attend to the very things that could guide them. So it is our job as parents, friends, teachers, social workers, and community members to assist. Here are some tools that each of us can use when we encounter a child who seems to fit the description.
If you know a child who resembles the description above, it is a good idea to read the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Marc Haddon. The author, a man who spent years working with autistic children, wrote this story from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy named Christopher, a child with autism. In it, Christopher negotiates the events of his life with the literal interpretation, peculiarities, and anxiety typical to children with social reasoning difficulties. Seeing his life as he feels it will open your eyes to the lives of these children. Understanding their view of the world is key to knowing how to guide and support them. These children represent one of my favorite groups of clients. Perhaps it is their innocent perspective on life, or maybe it’s their incredibly enduring spirits. Each one of them leaves an indelible mark on my heart because of their resilience, strength, and courage. While we have a lot to teach them about our fast-paced, sometimes cynical world, we can also learn a lot from them.