In the weeks prior to Valentine’s Day, classrooms, stores, and commercials are covered in hearts, cupid cutouts, and other decorations in an array of red, pink, and purple, with messages of relationships and love. Valentine’s Day creates mixed reactions, emotions, and pressure for people of all ages, including adults and teenagers. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Valentine’s Day can create an array of emotional confusion. Yet, it can also provide parents and teachers the perfect teaching opportunity about social skills and social relatedness, better enabling these children to relate to their peers over the shared interest of this special day.
The first step in making Valentine’s Day a successful teaching opportunity, as well as a success of its own, is to identify your child’s fears and deficits in the area of social skills and to help untangle the emotions involved. Interviews or questionnaires can help identify areas of need with many children, while direct observation can be more beneficial to others.
Areas that can be difficult for children and teens with ASD include, but are not limited to:
- Nonverbal cues/body language – with regard to attending to others, reading nonverbal social cues and determining how to adjust behavior accordingly, discriminating between boredom and welcoming cues, sarcasm vs. sincerity, respecting others’ belongings, personal space, personal hygiene, odd facial expression; odd mannerisms, and manners
- Dealing with anger/frustration – with regard to defining anger, identifying causes for anger, identifying strategies to deal with anger
- Dealing with anxiety — identifying causes, situations, triggers for anxiety, and identifying strategies to deal with anxiety
- Conversation – as far as greeting; introductions; interrupting; active listening; getting to know interests of others; starting, maintaining, ending, and “repairing” conversations; calling and texting friends
- Building and maintaining relationships — finding friends, sharing friends, what to talk about, respecting others opinions, avoiding peer pressure, empathy, sharing personal information, sportsmanship, conflict resolution, teasing, bullying
- Dating — defining what a date is, when and how to ask someone on a date, reading signals, sexual harassment, dating do’s and don’ts
- Spending time with groups of friends/peers
- Dealing with school and family demands — what demands are reasonable, dealing with frustration, working cooperatively, dealing with stressful situations, negotiating, strategies
As with all skills that we teach our children with ASD, social skills require specialized teaching. Every child with ASD is different, but there are many methods that can work in individual, group and self-instructional teaching formats. One way is to use your child’s preferred interest (i.e., superheroes, video games, Legos) to help in Valentine’s Day by creating cards. Or, give your child the chance to help in selecting the type of candy or snack or to accompany their Valentine’s Day cards. Many schools have Valentine’s Day parties, so it is important for parents to find out from their child’s teacher what the schedule will be so that you can prepare your child with a timeframe and practice the routine.
Visual schedules can be very successful, including any changes in actual scheduled events, different people that may be present, changes in furniture, etc. Social stories may be helpful. Purchase a social story or create one of your own including a review of what will happen, with pictures if possible. Reviewing a social story several times prior to the event can be very helpful for many children. If your child is on a special diet, parents may want to notify the teacher ahead of time so that your child can be included. Teach your child about different situations that may happen on Valentine’s Day by role-playing exchanging Valentine’s cards or treats. Role-play and rehearse everything including personal space, eye-contact, voice volume, and turn taking. For older children, parents can discuss with their child the purpose of Valentine’s Day and provide more detail. Roleplay how to react to different situations that may occur. Several days prior to an event, role-play and rehearse exactly what is expected. It can be very helpful to actually visit where the event will take place, as well. For teens who may have a date, review everything including hygiene, manners, what to say, conversation starters, endings, how to save a conversation, etc. Roleplay as much as you can.
Source: Bay State Parent Magazine