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Social Issues Understood: When Children Struggle to Interact with Others

social anxiety in childrenNo parent wants to discover their son or daughter doesn’t have friends – to watch their child – who they know is loving, friendly and kind – get teased by other kids or play alone on the perimeter of the playground. It’s heartbreaking.

But these observable actions are early indicators that a child could be experiencing problems with social perception.

“Parents usually notice social interaction issues when their babies become toddlers and start moving around,” said Howard Eaton, founder and director of Eaton Arrowsmith School (EA). “They sometimes miss social cues apparent to adults or distance themselves from social groups.”

Kids who struggle with social interaction often fail to understand their emotions and the emotions of others, share information in inappropriate ways or don’t comprehend rules for politeness when speaking with people, and find reading body language and making eye contact difficult (social perception).

However, not every child who exhibits these symptoms is diagnosed with a social communication disorder. In fact, social interaction problems are often tied to other learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s Syndrome, or psychological and emotional disorders, hearing loss, specific language impairment, and other cognitive weaknesses.

Lost in conversation – Social Anxiety in Children

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, founder of the Arrowsmith Program, was diagnosed with a mental block in the first grade. She read and wrote everything backwards, had difficulty processing language concepts, frequently got lost, and was physically uncoordinated.

She was never diagnosed with a social communication disorder, but had few friends while growing up. The idea of interacting with others made her extremely anxious, so she avoided it.

“Social encounters that most people would look forward to held terror for me,” she writes in her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. “I knew I would not understand the conversations and would only be able to sit quietly hoping no one would try to engage me, to elicit comment.”

Arrowsmith-Young understood she didn’t fit in, but couldn’t figure out how to change the situation. She became depressed and isolated herself from her peers.

But she got through school using her strong work ethic and memory and then created a series of exercises to address her brain deficits. She later opened the Arrowsmith School, which has now used these exercises for more than 35 years to help students with learning difficulties.

A story of social transformation

Yale Henry is one of those students. He started at Eaton Arrowsmith in grade six after years of being bullied, having no friends, and struggling through school.

“I used to get bullied a lot because I didn’t understand humour or social cues,” he said. “Every day was difficult.”

Henry was diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disability and ADHD before attending EA. He said his brain didn’t allow him to process any sort of non-verbal input.

“People would talk to me and I wouldn’t understand what they were saying,” Henry said. “I couldn’t process what was happening around me – reactions, jokes, conversations.”

Henry attended EA for three years. He admits the exercises were challenging at first, but he gradually started to see changes.

“I understood social cues, jokes, and was even able to come up with jokes and relate to people,” Henry said. “There was a pretty dramatic difference.”

And the changes didn’t stop after he completed his program at EA and entered a mainstream high school.

“Even after I stopped doing the exercises, I was still growing,” Henry said.

A solution to social interaction problems

Until Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, the possibility of using cognitive intervention to improve social interaction had not been fully explored, according to Eaton. Today, there are still few other options available for kids who struggle with social issues.

“Arrowsmith-Young has developed cognitive exercises to strengthen areas of the brain that control social interaction,” Eaton said. “After doing these exercises, kids often say they are able to make sense of what their peers are thinking for the first time. Before, it was a guessing game and other children would look at them as if they were from Mars.”

Henry can relate to this feeling.

“I always liked helping people, but people couldn’t stand to be around me. I didn’t have friends before EA. I was lonely. I always wanted to help out, but I would get rejected,” Henry said.

Most students who attend Eaton Arrowsmith, like Henry, have other learning difficulties that impact math, reading, writing, spelling and/or written expression in addition to social interaction issues.

But EA’s programs of targeted cognitive exercises give these students the opportunity to improve their learning abilities and social skills.

In Henry’s case, EA helped him build social skills and even save his friend’s life.

Eaton Arrowsmith’s work in action

Two years after finishing his program at EA, Henry was attending West Vancouver Secondary School. He was in grade 11 and one of his friends was stabbed in a fight. At least a dozen other students gathered around, but Henry was the only one who stepped in to help.

He held the other student back until teachers arrived and tended to his friend who was badly injured.

“Before EA, I would have been too slow and awestruck to do anything, but it was a reflex this time. I knew I had to help my friend stop the bleeding, let the teachers know what happened, and call the police,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that before. I wouldn’t have been able to communicate or process what happened.”

Henry described how, when he first started at EA, he couldn’t do exercises that asked him to look at a picture and explain what was happening in that picture.

“The positive encouragement I received at EA kept me going,” Henry said.

He went from not being able to understand social cues to being honoured by the West Vancouver Police Department for stopping an attack and tending to a victim’s life-threatening injuries.

“As a child, I always wanted to be able to relate to other people,” Henry said. “Now I can.”

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