Book Review: Practical Social Skills for Autism Spectrum Disorders
Practical Social Skills for Autism Spectrum Disorders
Written by: Kathleen Koenig
Foreword by: Fred R. Volkmar
Published: W.W. Norton & Company
This refreshingly realistic guide for teaching social skills to kids with ASD, written by researcher Kathleen Koenig, acknowledges that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. The book's strength is in describing how to integrate the teaching of social skills into a whole program, including a section that explains how to facilitate collaboration amongst what is often a diverse support team.
Koenig’s background at the Yale Child Study Center clearly shows in the extensive literature reviews of the different approaches to teaching social skills, as well as the case studies which show how to implement and trouble-shoot these approaches. Discussions about the need to foster generalization of these skills and the inclusion of kids who are lower functioning and less verbal were particularly useful additions to the book.
One of the most interesting sections for me was the in-depth look at how social skills typically develop from infancy, which was followed by a description of how and why these might be different in autism. This provided a solid foundation from which to understand the pros and cons of each training approach.
That being said, there were a couple of aspects to the book that make it hard to recommend. Although it’s not difficult to get through, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it is hands-on and user friendly. While the extensive review of research is no doubt of interest and use to clinicians, it takes up much of the book and makes the content less accessible to non-professionals or those who are looking for a more practical how-to guide for implementing such a program.
While I did appreciate the obvious care and compassion that Koenig has for helping kids with autism, I have to say that some of the underlying assumptions of the book and its approach to autism made me uncomfortable. Specifically, the idea that the path to a rich and fulfilling life for everyone lies in being a social being, as defined by the typical population.
I also found it odd that for a book whose central premise is acknowledging individual differences, much of the onus is on the child to fit in and to change their atypical behaviours even when not harmful or disruptive to others.
At times I found the author's position to be unclear. She rightly points out that social success is to be gauged by what is meaningful to the child, and yet this contradicts many of the assumptions made about their desire for social interaction and the form it should take. These assumptions about what autistic kids want and what they’re capable of achieving is summed up in the section which advises families to be realistic about the expectations for their child's social success, specifically that being popular among peers is “a nearly unreachable goal for a child with ASD”.
I would have found the book more useful had it chosen to focus on helping autistic kids to discover a way to connect socially that feels comfortable and enjoyable to them, rather than training them to successfully interact in the ways that make everyone else comfortable. For some kids that might mean teaching them to initiate face-to-face contact, but for others it's helping them to connect with people online. It can even be simply helping them to feel okay with not needing or wanting to hang out with other people, despite pressure from those around them to do so.
So while I appreciate the desire to help autistic kids develop enriching relationships, and have little doubt that these interventions can be used to successfully teach important social skills, the book ultimately feels incomplete. Relationships are a two-way street... and a rich and rewarding life for autistic kids includes feeling part of a community that accepts and understands them.
I received no incentive or compensation for writing this review, other than a free electronic copy of the book from the publishers.