Recently I was talking with the mom of one of our 5-year old group participants. I was concerned because he had been more emotional lately and I wanted to ensure that the group was still therapeutic for him. This little guy has recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and the most significant challenge for him right now is being able to engage in conversations or activities not of his choosing.
As I was talking to his mom about his reactions in groups, she pointed out that as she sees it, with him being a preschooler his social interactions occur in one of three situations: preschool, the park, and our social group, and she sees these three social environments as providing a range of structure. “The structure of his school is like a ‘5’,”she said, “and time at the park is like a ‘1’, but the group is a ‘3’, it is the only place where he can fall apart and then have the time and space to work on recovering.”
She went on to explain that he attends a preschool program which is extremely structured and his social interactions there are rather contrived. When he goes to a choice area to play, he is given a visual schedule prompt to follow. He is expected to (1) ask to play with those in the center, to (2) ask one question and finally to (3) make one comment. With this level of support, he is quite successful. He stays calm and is able to engage in the rest of the school day’s activities. Over time, the expectations will be systematically increased to ensure ongoing success. In this environment, this level of support is necessary to ensure his success.,
Contrast that with the playground in his neighborhood where there are no visual prompts, no clear expectations from peers and he is able to leave any given situation at will. In this case, he typically avoids peer interaction, preferring instead to do what he wants. But that isn’t really so bad and in fact is also necessary. Everyone needs a place to indulge their interests and to avoid difficult interactions.
The challenge is that while he is generally calm in each of these situations, as his mom said, “neither are real life and we want him to succeed in real life.” She went on to say that she recognizes the value in each of these social experiences, but that she feels the middle ground provided by the group is also critical. “We learn best from our failures, but only if the right supports are available. And that is how I see the group…as a safe place to fail and to recover and ultimately to learn from the experience.”.
This perspective was incredibly reassuring to us as therapists. While we want to be confident all of the time that our instincts are always right on, the fact is that it is hard sometimes to know when we are giving kids the “just right challenge” and when we could have done something differently. Hearing from a mom that she trusts the process, even though it may not be perfect, gives us the “just right feedback” to keep on going.
Submitted by Karen S. Head M.S. CCC-SLP
image by Jeremiah Roth