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Using Media as an Effective Tool to Teach Social Skills to Adolescents and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Media is a powerful educational tool for adolescents and young adults in general; however, for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) it provides a unique opportunity to learn social skills. Popular television shows, movies, YouTube clips, and other social media sites are a vehicle to model both appropriate and inappropriate social skills related to friendships, relationships and sexuality. Identifying non-verbal communication, body positioning and gestures in videos helps individuals with ASD learn how to recognize interest, indifference or dislike in relationships, areas that are often challenging to individuals on the spectrum. Using these cues, we can work to translate these skills into real life interactions with individuals with ASD and their peers.

Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) runs groups on Healthy Relationships and Sexuality for Individuals on the Autism Spectrum and has started to utilize media as an educational tool in our broader curriculum. We focus on the dynamics presented in different shows and dissect how scenarios shown may happen in real life. Situations that may be realistic in the client’s daily life are highlighted and we explore together how they could handle the social interactions in a more effective way. Using television, movies and social media as models for social skills has been instrumental in positively engaging young adults on the spectrum.

One television show we use often in our curriculum is The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon, one of the show’s main characters, exhibits many personality traits of a person on the autism spectrum. Discourse about his behavior, actions and reactions has been a powerful method of identifying the appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond in a conversation. Parents and educators can use clips from shows like this to help individuals with ASD learn how to relate to peers, engage in relationships and identify suitable behaviors.

We also use The Big Bang Theory to facilitate conversations about relationships in a WJCS group for young adults with ASD. Participants watch the show together and discuss the conflicts they observed. Group members offer insight into the character’s behavior, their relationships and different ways they would act in those situations. We have explored body language, sarcasm and slang terms that often arise on nighttime television shows that may not be obvious to all viewers. It has been an effective instrument in creating a dialogue between the different participants and encouraging them to share their opinions.

Details about relationship nuances also can be explained through movies. The movie Adam, made in 2009 and starring Hugh Dancy, presents a story about a character with Asperger’s Syndrome and his relationship with a woman. The movie explores how his intelligence, special interests and sensory needs all impact his relationship with a woman. We use these examples to look at how Adam’s behavior in his relationship may be different than others. This movie serves as an important platform to begin a conversation among our clients about their own fears surrounding dating and how their special needs may affect their dating.

The recent MTV reality show Catfish: The TV Show demonstrates how easily individuals can become victims on the Internet. This show displays real people chatting with others online, and believing they are engaging in a relationship with a picture they have seen online. The show creators arrange for the individuals to meet and the show exposes how often the individuals are not as they are pictured online. After discussing the act of “catfishing” in one WJCS group, a 13-year-old male client admitted to chatting with a woman online and engaging in sexual conversations. He expressed how she reported to like the same activities and games as he did, but then the conversation turned sexual. He struggled to understand why a person would lie about his or her identity and try to harm another person. Using this show as a teaching opportunity allowed WJCS professional staff to help this male client terminate his relationship with the woman he “met” online. Individuals with ASD are statistically more likely to be victimized due to their disability, so discussing the risks of meeting people on the Internet and trusting individuals you have not met in person is key to ensuring safety.

Awards shows like the Emmys, Grammys and Oscars also create a platform for conversation about appropriate dress, public statements and popular culture. At the Oscars in 2013, Seth Macfarlane’s opening number was a song titled “We Saw Your Boobs.” Audiences around the country were outraged this took place during such a public performance. Many individuals were watching this show with their families or friends, and this created a perfect opportunity to communicate about the appropriateness of these statements. If a person with ASD walked up to someone in Starbucks and stated, “I see your boobs,” he or she could be charged with sexual harassment; yet, this statement was made during the Oscars and deemed acceptable by many. Opening a dialogue about how popular culture allows behaviors like this in Hollywood, yet the same behaviors are unacceptable in daily interactions is important in our work to educate people with ASD about appropriate social interactions.

We encourage clients and their families to watch television and movies together as a way to facilitate conversations about social skills. We recommend clients watch shows for homework and identify times when characters demonstrate appropriate ways to communicate as well as times when they observe characters displaying unacceptable behavior. This gives clients, families and WJCS staff an important opportunity to work together to explore reactions and behaviors in different situations.

When modeling social skills to adolescents and young adults with ASD, utilizing media is a helpful tool to identify patterns of communication, interpersonal interactions and non-verbal communication. Many television shows, movies and media outlets demonstrate both appropriate and inappropriate ways to relate to friends, engage in relationships and behave in a job setting. Creating a platform for adolescents and young adults with ASD to dialogue about these observations is a fun and effective tool in teaching and modeling social skills.

 

Caroline Melcer, LCSW, is Clinical Social Worker and Program Facilitator of Outpatient Services for People with Developmental Disabilities at Westchester Jewish Community Services.  She can be contact by emailing cmelcer@wjcs.com or 914-949-7699 x467. For more information about the programs at WJCS, please visit www.wjcs.com.

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