Social Skills and LDs

Kids interacting

Learning disabilities can affect any area of a person’s life, including how well we learn the social skills that allow us to live with other people: how to make friends, how to interact with peers, how to deal with authority figures, how to fit in. Since our social lives are so central to who we are, deficits in social skills can be as, or more, debilitating than academic difficulties.

How do LDs affect Social Skills?

Social skills can be impacted by a number of different types of LDs:

  • Individuals with visual-spatial or nonverbal LDs may struggle with the unspoken elements of communication and interaction, like interpreting facial expressions or tone of voice, or knowing how close to stand to others when talking, or how to join in a game, or how to begin dating.
  • Individuals with language-related LDs may miss out on the verbal interactions of social life: conversations, jokes, small talk, etc. For example, people with auditory processing deficits may not be able to follow the fast-paced dialogue in a movie.
  • Individuals with ADHD may experience difficulties in their social interactions, inadvertently, due to interruptions, impulsivity, habitual lateness and/or disorganization.

In addition to the LD-related aspects of social skills, individuals who experience ongoing academic or work-related failures can also become socially isolated.

What Helps?

There are ways to help – and they may vary significantly depending on the reason for the deficit.

For a person who struggles with the nonverbal elements of social life, it could help for a parent, teacher or other ally to describe the non-verbal aspects and elements of the social situation.

“He looks angry – his eyebrows are tight and he is frowning – and I think this is because the other boy took his phone.”

Putting the often abstract aspects of our communication into words helps with understanding,

For a person who is missing out for reasons to do with language – the strategy will be different. If conversation is too fast to process, a friend or advocate may explain privately what has happened.

As complex and diverse as LDs are, there are some key strategies that work well for all. People who feel anxious or isolated need to be included – through simple kindness and courtesy. Risk-taking requires safety and support.

Social Skills Training

Whether this learning happens in the course of a social-skills group or class – or somewhere else – it is clear that respectful teaching of social skills is a good thing. How formalized that teaching needs to be is less clear.  Sometimes use of a group of peers rather than parents can be a positive experience.

If your child is struggling with their social skills, it may help to examine specific interactions with them directly. The following suggestions may be helpful:

  • Review your child’s social interactions and examine what occurred for both successes and errors.
  • Look at causes and effects between behaviour/messages and the reactions of others.
  • Explore what both verbal and nonverbal messages meant and what feelings may have been felt by both your child and the others involved.
  • Ask questions like “What do you think you did?” or “What do you think you could do?” If they don’t know, tell them the likely outcome.
  • Use a conversation or a TV show or movie to provide some examples of social interactions to review with your child.
  • Encourage your child to play with others.
  • Facilitate play dates, but don’t impose another child on yours. Everyone has preferences in regards to whom they want to play with.
  • For nonverbal LDs, provide verbal explanations.
  • It is important to verbally explain social concepts and give rules and reasons for the social skills.
  • Explain abstract terms such as “friendly” and “cooperative.”
  • Teach body language and facial expressions and the meanings they have.
  • Be empathic when social failures occur. Instead of criticizing, try saying things like, “I know you didn’t realize that…” or “I know you didn’t want such and such to happen when you… ”
  • Use these incidents as learning opportunities. Remember that social failures are usually due to a deficit, so be patient, not reprimanding.
  • Consider professional interventions. A social skills program and/or counselling can be useful in helping promote social competence.