Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Using Television to Teach Teens Social Skills

Social skills get more subtle once kids reach high school, and that’s a time when many teens with autism, Asperger’s and ADHD really start to struggle with friends and peer relationships. Often, these kids have gone through the basic social skills training at school or in a social skills group when they were younger. By now, they want nothing more to do with a formal class, but they’re still missing out on some of the more subtle details.

I thought TV episodes might be a useful, fun way to help teens look at social signals. Although the plots of a lot of teen programs are pretty unrealistic, the situations more mature, and the conversations often more adult and introspective than teens really use, the settings are familiar, and the programs are something teens will relate to. They also tend to use body language, but in a bolder, broader way, which can be easier for teens on the spectrum to pick up on. Finally, because these scenes are online, you can watch and rewatch as many times as you want to catch the details, even muting the dialogue to shift focus to the nonverbals.

This week I’m looking at some personal space and nonverbal communication issues as illustrated by the show Glee. You can see these episodes on for free. Note to parents: some of you may object to the more mature themes in this program. I’ll be looking for other shows to comment on as well, but before banning the program, consider if this is something all the other kids at school are watching. Not having seen a popular show can make it hard for kids to fit in. You can watch together, and discuss issues, such as is this scenario realistic, or appropriate, or does this fit with your own values. (If you have a particular show that’s online that you’d like me to analyze, please comment here, or send me an email.)

In Glee, Season 1 Episode 9, Wheels, the show starts with scenes of cheerleading practice. Sitting alone in the bleachers is blonde Quinn, soon to be joined by tall, dark haired Finn. (If you’re new to this show, it might not be obvious from the ways they’re acting that these two are a couple.) Notice the tense body language. As Finn approaches, he doesn’t greet Quinn, he just sits down, at a distance that’s not typical for a dating couple having a one on one conversation. Quinn doesn’t turn to Finn, she doesn’t lean toward him or adjust her body posture, she barely even looks at him. Before anything is said, and without knowing anything about the plot, it’s clear that this pair is not feeling close and connected. Throughout their scene together, Quinn only turns her eyes or occasionally her face to Finn, never her shoulders or the rest of her body, a clear sign of discord between the pair.

Now look at Season 1, Episode 10, Ballad. The show starts with all the students sitting on the bleachers, spaced evenly with almost mathematical precision. (Your teen may not be aware of this spacing rule, but it’s pretty consistent in our culture. People tend to space themselves out fairly evenly, sitting closer to close friends, but not sitting next to strangers unless the space gets more crowded. Think about a movie theater. If it’s almost empty, sitting in adjacent seats is something only friends do. Strangers space themselves out. As the theater fills, it’s not threatening or inappropriate to sit next to strangers.) The exception to the Glee bleacher spacing, which may not be obvious to kids who don’t pick up on social cues, is Quinn and Finn, sitting together as a couple. Finn’s posture isn’t that different than in the previous episode, but now Quinn is leaning into Finn, almost draped on him. Clearly, she is in a different mood than the previous episode. Notice also that the rest of the students are angled slightly toward the center, indicating some cohesion, and friendship alliances can be gauged just by noting who is sitting together. When the teacher asks, “Who knows what a ballad is?” notice how Rachel immediately thrusts up her hand with too much enthusiasm. Can your child glean information about Rachel’s character from this simple action?

Well, I’ve watched about 5 minutes of TV, and written a full post on the details. What details can you and your teen pick up from body language?

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