This is a really difficult task, even for people without social learning challenges. The first step is to ‘read the room’ to determine if it’s an appropriate time and/or place to start a conversation. Lunch at school is a great time and place, but in the middle of Algebra is not. A place where people are waiting is usually acceptable (waiting room, public transportation, in line at a store), but not if the intended conversation partner is on the phone or talking to someone else.
*Note: If you are initiating a conversation with someone you know, you can typically do so with a basic conversation starter. Examples include:
Initiating a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance takes a little more work as these openers would typically make a stranger or acquaintance feel a bit uncomfortable. The remainder of this section applies to initiating a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance.
Hey, what’s up?
How are you?
How was your weekend?
What are you up to?
How have you been?
Once it’s been determined that the conditions are appropriate, think of something you notice about that person as a starter. We typically recommend things that are outside the torso area so our intentions aren’t misinterpreted.
During the month of February we, at Starfish Social Club, are working on conversation skills. Engaging in a successful conversation is a pretty complex process with lots of moving pieces.
Students with social learning challenges may struggle with conversational skills for multiple reasons.
Students who struggle with interpreting social cues may have a difficult time knowing when to change the topic or when they’ve talked too long.
Those who struggle with considering the wants/needs of others may be challenged with choosing appropriate topics for the audience.
Slower processing speed may make keeping up with the pace of conversations difficult.
Lack of cognitive flexibility may cause topic changes and different opinions to be a challenge.
These skills require explicit instruction due to the social awareness factors that are a core part of each. I am listing the skills here in the order in which I feel they are easiest and most logical to teach. This is the first half of a two-part post.
Aspergers101 welcomes Stephanie Pepi, founder and director of Starfish Social Club as an underwriting sponsor to our newest resource: Aspergers101 FAQ page! Stephanie’s experience and passion led her to open a program solely dedicated toward helping children – adults challenged (if not crippled) with a lack of social skills. We look forward to her future contributions in the area of social development but thought you would like to get to know her, given advice to parents during a socially awkward outing and the rapidly growing non-profit to watch, Starfish Social Club.
Aspergers101: Tell us about Starfish Social Club.
Starfish Social Club provides small group, direct social skills instruction to students with social learning challenges, ages 4 through adult. Students learn new skills, practice in a safe environment, and engage with similar peers in leisure activities on a weekly basis. The only requirements for enrollment are the ability to converse with peers and a desire to learn and practice new skills. Community outings (without mom and dad!) are available most weekends as well. Our goals are to increase social awareness and provide opportunities for students to form relationships with others.
Aspergers101: What areas and ages do you serve?
We serve students age 4 and up, including adults. There are no disability requirements; anyone with a social learning challenge is welcome. The majority of our students are on the autism spectrum. Most of our students have ADHD. Other common diagnoses are learning disabilities, anxiety, and mood disorders. We are located in the north central area of San Antonio and groups meet at our location.
Aspergers101: Your resume is quite impressive, from special education administrator to the track coach for a special olympics team! What led/inspired you to launch Starfish Social Club?
Students with social learning challenges are incredibly misunderstood. Students with social challenges but no ‘behavior’ issues are very often overlooked for services. These students go through school confused and often become socially neglected. Students with ‘behavior’ issues are really students with social learning challenges that aren’t being addressed effectively. These students go through school frustrated and often socially rejected. ‘Social skills’ can be a very vague, abstract concept and sometimes educators and parents are put in the position of teaching ‘social skills’ without really even understanding the complexity of it all. Social skills are much more than making and keeping friends, they are also about getting and keeping a JOB! There are lots of opportunities for someone with a high school diploma, but how many for someone who doesn’t know how to disagree appropriately? Has poor hygiene? Doesn’t filter their thoughts? Doesn’t acknowledge the presence of others? There is a saying that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. I believe academic skills win school life, but social skills win real life. My goal is to empower kids with the social skills they need to be successful outside of and after school.
Aspergers101: You work with school systems, what do you see as the most challenging social struggles for students with special needs?
Most students with Asperger Syndrome realize around 2nd/3rd grade that they are struggling socially. A lot of kids who struggle start to feel different and alone. While there are lots of kids with social challenges in the world, they aren’t always able to find each other. Most friendships are formed based on similar interests/goals/personalities.
After an extensive career broadcast marketing, Jennifer and her husband searched for answers when their oldest son hit the kinder years with great difficultly. After finally learning that their oldest son had Aspergers Syndrome, she left her career in television and became a full time mother to both of her sons. Jennifer elicited the participation of her sons and together they produced several independent programs including a children’s animated series titled Ameriquest Kids (now distributed by Landmark Media) as well as her documentary and book titled, Coping to Excelling: Solutions for school-age children diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism or Aspergers Syndrome.
The need for more information encouraged Jennifer to elicit a team of autism experts to provide weekly, original content to a website free to anyone seeking to live their best under the diagnosis of High-Functioning Autism/Aspergers Syndrome… appropriately titled: Aspergers101.com.