Thursday, October 29, 2009

These are the Wonder Years, the Formative Years, Ages 1 through 12...12...12...

A reader (apparently I have a couple!) asked about specific strategies for boosting self confidence for children with social communications disabilities in middle school.

In the case of my son, I thought at the time that these years were harder for his Dad and me than they were for him. In school, he really liked all his teachers, especially the specialist he worked with in the Learning Center a couple of days a week. Although he was not an outstanding athlete, he played soccer, basketball and baseball through our town’s recreation league so had a peer group outside of school. By then, he was too old for arranged play dates, so beyond school and team sports he didn’t really have friends over, or go to friends’ houses. Our town sponsored four or five dances a year for 7th and 8th graders, and my son went to many of them.

He’d come home afterward and usually said it was fun, or at least “okay.” And every time, my husband and I wondered/worried who he talked to there, who he stood with for that matter. There were those who would say to us, “that’s great that he goes; I could never do that when I was his age.” And a little voice inside me would be saying, “Well, he doesn’t ‘get’ that kids don’t usually hang out alone at these events.”

It was not until the last year or so that he told me that he was aware, either at the time or in hindsight, that he had few friends in elementary school. The part of his life that I had thought was harder on his parents was not so great for him either. On his way off – stag – to his senior prom, he mentioned that “At least I know I’ll have friends I can talk to – not like those rec dances.”

His Dad and I never pushed him to go to those dances; in fact, no small part of me often wished he would stay home. I think we knew he would be largely on the outside looking in. Yet of the eight or so dances between 7th and 8th grades, I bet he went to more than half. I don’t know why he went; I don’t know if he’s a more confident person because he went or if it might have diminished his self-esteem.

I do know that by that time, he already had a truly exceptional network of adults who encouraged him and engaged him, including teachers, therapists and family members. Moreover, his peers respected him – even if they did not go out of their way to invite my son to do things with them. There was never any of the teasing or bullying that creeps into the lives of some children with social communication disorders.

That’s not the best you can ask for under the circumstances, but caring empathetic adult relationships can compensate to a significant degree for a shortage of peer friends. For the first few years my son had a cell phone, most of his contacts were family members. He’d go “walk-about” and call his grandparents, aunts or uncles. They were actually good friends to him as well.

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