- Published on Thursday, 27 January 2011 13:42
The Mirror (London, England)
December 2, 2010
Why can't your child make friends? Childhood should be a time for fun, play and making friends. So why is it that for some children, things aren't quite so simple?
SECTION: Pg. 51 ISSN: 1462-995X
LENGTH: 921 words
Byline: Tanith Carey
Victoria is the type of child that other girls in her class describe as "a bit weird".
She's only nine, but there's something about her body language andthe way she hovers at the sidelines during games which makes them uncomfortable.
From time to time, Victoria also pipes up with "funny" things in lessons.
The last time was when she talked about where she went on holiday last year during maths.
Behind her back, although never to her face, the other children complain that Victoria is a "show-off" because she talks "at" them instead of just joining in with their conversations.
So at break-time, Victoria often finds she has no-one to play with. She sits on the fringes in the playground with a book, plays with younger children who are more likely to accept her or goes to the library. For Victoria's mother, Amanda, it's heartbreaking.
She says: "Because Victoria is bright, I used to think she was just grown-up for her age, that she preferred talking to adults and she'd grow out of it.
"But now it's so painful to see her being left out of all the parties and sleepovers I know are happening.
"She tells me she prefers adults and she doesn't care what people think of her, but I feel like a failure.
"I'm worried for her future, too. Girls her age can be very judgmental and once you get labelled as being 'weird', it's hard to escape that tag."
Every parent wants their child to be popular and deep down, every child wants friends. Studies have found that good friendships are essential for self-esteem, happiness and success later in life. But until now, it's been assumed that making friends is something children do naturally, even if some are better at it than others. Now, for the first time, child specialists are looking at the possibility that not knowing how to make friends is just as much of a learning difficulty as conditions like dyslexia. In the same way as those learning difficulties affect how well children do at school, US experts believe a delay in the way a child's brain processes social cues affects their popularity.
Just as dyslexic children can't form words out of the jumble of letters in front of them, children with social learning problems - dyssemia - can't read messages from the facial expressions and body language indicators that make up 55% of all communication.
While it takes the average person three seconds to work out social cues, in the brain of a child with dyssemia, it can take much longer.
If they don't get help, child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner says it can lead to anxiety and depression. Michelle, who is pioneering an approach to the problem called "Social Thinking", says: "Children are just told to 'go and play' from the age of about three. But you can't always just tell children the rules and expect them all to understand.
"Concepts like how to share, co-operate and when to say the expected thing are complicated ideas."
Although children with Asperger's Syndrome are known to have problems making friends, dyssemia is believed to affect a wider range of children who are not classified as autistic.
A helping hand
Michelle, who runs a centre in California to help children with these difficulties, says it's time that the problem is recognised in the same way as difficulties with numbers or spelling. She says: "These kids may be caught in a one-way street. They know why they like other children, but they may not realise what they are expected to do to be liked back."
Many parents feel helpless and often try to sweep the issue under the carpet, she adds.
Early on, they may explain away their child's behaviour by saying they are too bright, too grown up for their age or just not very goodin social situations.
It can also be very hard for parents to watch their children beingleft out.
"Parents often feel a terrible sense of failure. For example, I have just spoken to the mother of a teenage boy who told me how sad shefeels that even though her son is in the school play, every night the entire cast go to a restaurant after a performance - but he never gets invited."
In the same way that children can learn to overcome academic learning disabilities in the classroom, Michelle says awkward children canalso be taught the social skills they need to develop healthy friendships.
Michelle says: "Even if they don't get it by intuition, we can teach children how to think about how others see them and to use their eyes, ears and brains to learn what is expected from them.
"The goal isn't to make them the coolest kid in the class. It's tomake sure they feel more included by other kids they want to be friends with."
'YOU ARE A SOCIAL DETECTIVE' AND 'THINKING ABOUT YOU AND THINKING ABOUT ME' BY MICHELLE GARCIA WINNER ARE AVAILABLE [in the UK] FROM WWW.THINKINGBOOKS.CO.UK. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT WWW.SOCIALTHINKING.COM
What you can do
Body social smarts:
Tell children that in the same way they can be smart at music or English, they can also have "social smarts" which can be improved through practice.
Use movies or television shows to help children guess what the on-screen characters will do next based on their facial expressions and body language.
Explain how body language affects the way other children see them. Tell them they will need to turn the front of their body towards a group - and maintain the right distance - to let others know they wantto join a game.
Explain that if they don't use their eyes to look at people, otherchildren will think they are not being friendly.