Sunday, April 4, 2010

Understanding Social Cues

Today is Easter. Yesterday, our subdivision had an Easter party and mini-carnival in the nieghborhood park. Not only do I love these type of events because they are fun, but I enjoy watching children play. I think it is fun to watch the kids during the Easter egg hunt. And this year a little excitement was added when a baby rabbit jumped across the park, then 10 minutes later the mama rabbit jumped out too. The kids were squealing ecstaticly as they watched and chased the rabbit. Of course the kids were also happy to participate in the games such as the bean bag toss, "fishing", sack races, and the cake walk.

It was at the cake walk that I was in such a state of analyzation while I observed my son. At first, he was watching the other kids (including big sister) walk around the course of numbers as he sat in his stroller. Then they stopped and if their number was called out, they won a cake or other treats. Eventually, he repeatedly said "walk, walk", so I let him out of the stroller. My gut was that this 21 month old is going to run all around aimlessly. But he didn't. I was pleasantly surprised when he went over and joined the school-aged children at the cake walk. He even went the correct direction and walked about the same distance from the numbered markers as the other kids. What impressed me the most, is when the music stopped he looked around and noticed the other kids stopped at a marker. So he stopped and he stood there for about 2-3 minutes just like the others did. When the music began again, he participated again. I was in such awe that I didn't have to teach him how to participate; he just took social cues and used them correctly. I have 6 year old clients with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorders that don't know how to do this. It always amazes me how effortlessly a typically developing child learns to perform such skills. Maybe because I was an occupational therapist for 9 years before I had my first child, but I am always flabbergasted that such things don't have to be taught. This makes me appreciate the littile kids that I work with even more, because they have to work soooo HARD for every new skill they learn. And for many reasons, social skills are one of the last things to come along. Language and motor skills are often the focus of therapy initially. Later on, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skills are addressed. But it takes all of these skills combined to have decent social skills. Whether it be reciprocating during conversation, imitating the action of peers, or not blurting out something inappropriate, social skills do not come easy to many young (and older) kids with disabilities.

Sometimes to work on client's social skills, I meet clients and their parents within the community such as at McDonald's (R) playground and parks. These places seem to always have other children present which makes it the perfect location to work on social skills. Sometimes, I have clients that progress to reading the cues of the other kids, but so often we are working on the basics such as waiting in line at the slide, not pushing or hitting other kids, and playing near other children. I do think however with repetition that many children eventually learn these skills, especially when imitation is a focus in individual therapy sessions. Those who do not catch on naturally over time may benefit from a social-motor group at a local therapy or psychology clinic. At first, the parents and therapist are exerting a lot of energy for the kids to play together. Over time, it is nice to see how the adults can back-off because the kids are improving...yeah!

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