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Social cognition deficit

Social skills, like any other skills, have to be learned. Yet much of what children learn about socially appropriate behaviour is not actually taught to them; they simply pick it up as they go along.

Some children of normal intelligence seem to be less able to learn these things, even when taught. This may be their only area of difficulty, but it is commonly associated with other learning difficulties.

These children have been accurately described as being ‘socially tone deaf’. They do not pick up the same cues as other children of the same age. They do not seem to predict the social consequences of their actions. They may be uninhibited, undressing in public without the same embarrassment that their peers would experience. They may be overfriendly to strangers. They may frequently say very tactless things without realizing the effect they are having. They often do not read facial expressions and are oblivious to whether someone is angry or upset with them. They may kiss classmates at an age where this is no longer appropriate. They may make unusual sounds in public. They may be insatiable in their activities, not knowing when to stop in the way another child of their age would.

Although such behaviour may be apparent to all who meet the child, the people who are most likely to notice it are the child’s peers. With them, the child often sticks out like a sore thumb. This is something that may not be apparent if the child is only observed in a one-to-one relationship at a clinic.

It is typical of such children that they have little or no insight into how differently they are perceived. They do not seem to be able to learn the skills that are required to mix with others. They often become loners, or play with children younger or older than themselves. With younger children, they blend in because of their immaturity. With older children, more allowances are often made for their inappropriate behaviour.

These problems are usually very distressing for parents. This may be compounded by not realizing that the child’s behaviour is not the parents’ fault. These children need to be taught social skills but, as is the case with any form of specific learning difficulty, progress is often slow.

Many health centres and adolescent units now run social skills training groups where children can learn to become better at understanding the social consequences of their actions. They can also acquire techniques for interpreting social cues and for being accepted by peers.

Parents can play a role by tactfully pointing out ways in which the child could win friends. It may be helpful to rehearse certain situations with your child so that he learns how to act in those situations. This can be done so that it is an enjoyable experience.

You may need to take an active role in arranging for another child to play with your child after school. If your child is too shy to invite a prospective friend home to play, arrange this with the child’s parents. Once your child’s confidence increases, your involvement will no longer be necessary. Children usually get on better in groups of two, rather than three.

Such children usually need work at improving their self-esteem and coping with teasing. If a child is being teased, particularly in certain situations such as the bus stop or the swimming pool, there may be some action that can be taken to avoid this. The help of the teacher can be very productive in these situations.

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