I remember the feeling as both dread and elation. "I am going about this all wrong." I was about a year into my job as director of Kids Cooperate, running social skills support groups for children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, and I had just realized that the conventional wisdom about social skills training needed to be turned on its head.
I was sitting down, as I do each week after sessions, to synthesize my own observations, the notes from my facilitators, and feedback from the parents and participants themselves to assess, revise, and evolve my lesson plans as part of a process called emergent curriculum. I was feeling haunted by an interaction I had with a young man who, overwhelmed by the task in front of him, turned to me with tears in his eyes and pleaded, "help, my mind is an earthquake". I felt winded by the realization that while I was asking him to practice a social skill, he was sitting there experiencing an earthquake. What an impossible task! What a burden. The only thing worse than being in an earthquake, is being told by the people around you that the tremors are imaginary.
I saw in that moment, that our sensory perceptions create our reality. If you think you see a snake, your heart rate jumps, your mouth goes dry, and adrenaline pumps through your body, regardless of whether it is a real snake or just a length of garden hose. When a young person on the Autism Spectrum perceives a noise or touch, or light as noxious and overwhelming, he or she will shut down, blow up, or find some other way of avoiding the stimulus. When we ask people on the autism spectrum to "normalize" their interaction patterns, we start from a place of telling them that their reality is somehow inaccurate. When you are shaken by an earthquake, it isn't enough to simply pretend you are on a serene beach and carry on as normal. The best you can get from that is a robotic imitation of an interaction, which is what we have been asking for from young people on the Spectrum, and calling it a victory.
The traditional model of social skills training for people with high functioning Autism is to provide a toolbox full of strategies and skills, and hope to create a functioning layer of meta-cognition over social interaction to approximate the process that one goes through of identifying context appropriate responses, facial expressions, and voice modulation. These skills are acquired with relative ease, and can even be deployed in real life social situations, at which point most counselors claim success. The problem, and it is a big problem, is bridging the divide between "knowing it" and "getting it". A young adult can "know" a whole curriculum worth of social strategies like they "know" baseball statistics, but this rarely translates into "getting" it. The difference between knowing it and getting it is as big as the difference between a formal and over exaggerated salutation, and the kind of easy and authentic fist bump or head nod between friends in the hallway.
At Kids Cooperate we are pioneering a new type of intervention called the Social Sensory Cognition Process to address this problem. The Social Sensory Cognition Process (SSCP) is an experiential therapy for helping people with high functioning Autism to become more at ease in social situations by creating space for more complete sensory experiences. The SSCP shifts the intervention point from the mechanics of social interaction, to the sensory experience in order to reorganize perception. One of the reasons people on the Autism Spectrum are challenged by social expectations is that sensory processing challenges prevent a holistic sensory experience that is needed to navigate the subtleties and complexities of interaction. Some senses such as sounds or lighting are experienced with distracting vividness, while other important signals are ignored, or blocked out. Over time, prolonged or traumatic sensory experiences will cause avoidant behaviors. Important social signals come through in pieces over many channels, and must be decoded and sorted through cognitive processes. Without a holistic sensory experience, the information to make authentic and appropriate decisions about social interaction is simply not available.
The core of the Social Sensory Cognition Process is a heuristic called the 3 social senses. The 3 social senses are: Sight (facial expression, auxiliary social cues such as clothing, environmental context), Sound (tone of voice, environmental sounds, side conversations) and Space (social touch, personal boundaries, environmental safety hazards). In a typical session, the facilitator will begin by bringing the groups attention to the social senses and then leading a group activity to "tune up" such as giving children earplugs and encouraging them to communicate without sound. Then the group splits up into games and activities chosen to highlight the children's strengths and interests. During the activities the facilitators move about the room gently encouraging individuals to be in their space and mindful of the the social senses. If someone is overwhelmed they are encouraged to identify the emotions and sensations they are feeling and to fully experience them. "Take what you get".
The connection between perception and social interaction is immediate and direct. When the sensory experience is lopsided and overwhelming, it is impossible to be fully present and engaged in the experience of social exchange. When the Social Sensory Cognition Process is internalized, a person is focused on visual and verbal communication in a holistic way and authentic friendship is more likely to emerge. There is a Zen parable about a man who, chased by tiger finds himself dangling over a precipice by a vine. A rat emerges from a hole and begins to chew through the vine. Just then the man notices a ripe juicy berry growing from the vine and eats it, savoring each drop. The lesson is that when the mind is focused on the present, all of life's ferocious distractions, both real and imagined can be overcome.
Since committing to the Social Sensory Cognition Process, we have been floored by the transformation we have seen in groups from a simmering chaos of trigger points and idiosyncratic interests to a calm and engaged room full of young people participating in social interaction. I personally have been overwhelmed by the flood of anecdotes of positive behavior from parents, school professionals and the group members themselves. The paradox is that to help young people on the Autism Spectrum develop meaningful and authentic social connections, we first have to stop pressuring them to be anything other than the perfect person they are at this moment. Perfect in their perception and perfect in their potential.