Many kids say, "I don't care" or "I don't want friends" or "I don't like people." I don't care is a heavy topic to cover in a blog, but here is my shot at it!
Here is my spin on this. Our kids struggle to do something that appears so easy and seamless to everyone else. Those who are "higher functioning" begin to notice that they are not fitting in, but they don't know how to make it right. Some students report sitting in "friendship groups" that didn't teach them what they needed to know, or the message was that "using good social skills" means you'll have friends - but they sat in the group and still don't have friends. They start to build walls and then fortresses to protect themselves from thinking that they lack worth since they lack friendships. (Friendships, according the research, actually do help to validate our existence).
Some of our student’s worry they may be "invisible" to peers across the school day. Some seek negative attention by insulting others, using offensive humor, etc. After all, at least they are getting attention and some attention (negative or positive) is better than none. Some (actually most) say they don't care but they really do.
Some thoughts on what to do
- Know that when a kid says "I don't care" and they have a social learning problem, he or she often doesn't really mean it on a deeper level. It's more about what they are feeling at that particular point in time.
- Don't start your treatment by focusing on what they should do to make others feel good. They aren't there yet!! The focus of a social thinking group is not and should not be about making friends, being a friend, or hanging out with friends for kids who say I don't care. Instead, the focus has to be on what it means to have social ability. For example, how does walking down a school hall relate to thinking about what people are thinking? What does the student think about others? What types of thoughts do they have? Who at school (teacher, student, janitor, etc.) do they like the most and why? You will most likely find that the person they like the most is the person that makes them feel the best about themselves. Help them to learn what they require from others along these lines.
- If in a group, observe them and note how they go about getting attention from others. Is it always negative? Do they try to use humor? If so, these are moments where the student is trying to relate. Later, once you've gained their trust, gently point out that humor is a great way to relate to people and make others laugh - during the right time and place.
- I frequently touch base and let them know I am trying to understand their frustration. They very often don't really want to be perceived the way they are; they just feel pushed into that corner. If you have a counselor available (assuming you are not one), this would be a good person to also bring on the team.
- A number of our kids, when feeling they have to be "cool", come across as jerks to their peers. The reality is that many are incredibly sensitive and very sweet individuals if they can find a trusted adult to relate and connect to them away from peers. Once they trust and connect to an adult, they often do more to conform in the group. But they are still not there yet!
- Ultimately, the objective is to help them reshape their views on the social world in ways they can understand with a person they feel is trying to understand them. None of this is easy. It can take years for some of our kids to get there. We routinely find that teams have spent so much time focusing on academic learning that we neglected to give deeper direct instruction and rewards for learning to work in a group.
Teaching this group about social emotional relationships requires as much art as science, or perhaps even more art than science. One way to start is by putting yourself in their shoes. I have worked with many challenging kids and have only rarely met a student who is as "mean" or as "rude" as he or she appears to the masses. In fact if these students are "mean" or "rude" to you, don't personalize it. Realize it is just a way of putting up the protective walls.
Most importantly, these kids need to feel someone is listening to them. This doesn't mean you have to always agree with their views of the world, but the simple fact that you respect how truly hard it is for them to participate with others will go a long way.