Navigating social conflict with a speech pathologist

Communication is a key skill, as is understanding social situations and navigating social conflict. A speech pathologist can help develop these skills.

That sense of dread when the phone rings and it’s school. The feeling of ‘oh no, what is it now?’. When you have a child with autism, there are often frequent social conflicts at school that result in the dreaded call.

How do autistic kids struggle with social conflict?

Social conflicts could be about

  • being frustrated/annoyed and chasing, shouting or biting other children in the yard
  • feeling sad because they are left out and don’t know how to play with others
  • being lonely because they miss the familiarity of home
  • acting aggressively because of big emotions or being set up by others or
  • being upset from bullying and name calling
  • getting triggered by transitions from one activity to another

Whatever the reason or the feeling, navigating social situations is often key to these social conflicts. While we’d love for our kids to be born with huge resilience stores and to bounce back from any adversity, that’s rarely the case. Being autistic, it’s unlikely that they actually have skills or a well developed toolkit to be able to problem solve or navigate social conflict.

mama and baby capybara navigating social conflicts

3 Actual Phone Calls

1. Social Conflict #1

We’ve been contacted by school because our autistic child was chasing other kids and threatening to bite them. It took days to slowly draw the story out of them as they were reluctant to talk about it. The closest to the truth we got was that another child was singing loudly and this annoyed our child. Because of not having well developed skills in navigating social conflict, our child decided to chase the other kid. Our child was told to stop multiple times by the teacher, the other kid told them to stop. Unfortunately, our child couldn’t regulate and calm down in order to stop and so the situation escalated.

2. Social Conflict #2

Another time our child ended up writing “I hate school” notes and spent all afternoon crying in the sick room refusing to go to class. They felt sad and lonely because their friends didn’t want to play the game they wanted to. The friends ran off and played their game, and our child was left on their own all lunch. So, not being able to compromise, come up with group plans, or have flexible thinking hindered our child’s ability to navigate social conflict. This led to big feelings that took a long time to bounce back from.

3. Social Conflict #3

Another time, we had a call to say our child had been in a fight. Older kids had taunted them and set them up, telling them to fight. At lunchtime – a key time for social conflict due to the unstructured and relatively unsupervised nature – our child was dragged into a fight. Our child didn’t have the skills to navigate this social conflict; to say no, find a teacher or walk away. So, after more name calling our child lashed out physically and ended up in a fight with another kid. Uniforms were torn and more big feelings felt. Unfortunately, autistic children can be targeted by bullies because they are easy to rile up, annoy and get a reaction from.

What can speech pathologists help with?

Often people think about speech pathologists helping people to talk and make speech sounds. However, they can also help more broadly with communication. Speech pathologists can teach the social use of language, how to understand social situations, and non-verbal communication clues.

We’ve learnt lots from our speech pathologist including how to:

  • read emotions on faces and in situations
  • tell what others are thinking using social clues
  • make good guesses about what’s taking place in social situations
  • navigate social conflict and work collaboratively in a group
  • listen with your whole body
  • think about what others are thinking and feeling
  • take turns and follow social rules
  • consider what friends might like to talk about
  • appreciate different strengths and skills of different people and that we’re all different

Navigating social conflict with social thinking

Many of our speech pathology sessions are structured play sessions. Through real play situations we reinforce the 10 key concepts in Social Thinking.

1. Group Plan

The first step in a session is to come up with a Group Plan. A group plan is an agreement between the people involved on what they want to do. Sometimes our kids want to do their own things, can’t agree on one thing, and don’t want to play together. They gently get directed to come together and find an activity they can do together. This involves a lot of the next concept.

2. Whole Body Listening

Often our autistic kids will be in their own world. They are focused on their interest, head down, ignoring everyone else. Whole Body Listening is important to show that you are listening, and interested in the other person. You point your body towards them, look at them with your eyes, put your hands away and listen with your ears.

3. Body in the group

Once an activity and plan of action has been agreed on through a group plan and whole body listening, the next step is to have body in the group. Pretend you’ve just agreed to play with someone else. Imagine if you then sit with your back to them, away from the group. Your body language says you’re not interested in this group. You need to have your body in the group, facing the activity.

4. Thinking with your eyes

You need to keep watching the other group members. One of them might look sad with a turned-down mouth, teary eyes, arms crossed, shoulders hunched and starting to face away from the group. Then use your eyes to look at all the social signals and think about what they might be thinking. What does their facial expression and their body tell you? Also, what have they said, and what clues can you find in the surroundings?

5. Expected and Unexpected

So, you broke the group plan. Maybe you changed the rules and this was unexpected. The other person may get upset. When we do things that are unexpected, this can make others uncomfortable.

6. Thoughts and Feelings

It’s time to bring out the whole body listening again. We need to express our thoughts and feelings with words. So, use “I statements” and use words to say what you are feeling and thinking. For example, “I feel sad because you took my pieces to make your thing.”

7. Size of the problem

When we have big feelings, we need to remember the size of the problem. Is the problem huge and not able to be solved? When we appreciate how actually bad a problem is, we can come up with an appropriate solution.

8. Flexible and stuck thinking

It takes flexible thinking to be a good problem solver. When you have stuck thinking, you can’t come up with new solutions to problems. You are obsessed with what you want. But, with flexible thinking you can have creative solutions that help everyone be happy in the group.

9. Smart guess, wacky guess

Sometimes we need to make guesses about what others are thinking. Building on ‘Thinking with our Eyes’, we can make smart guesses about the situation and what others are thinking. So, we need to look for social clues in facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, voice tone and our surroundings. By using clues, we can make smart guesses rather than wacky guesses.

10. Sharing an imagination

Finally, I think sharing an imagination is the ultimate in navigating social play. When you can use your imagination and combine it with someone else to create a shared imagination, it’s the pinnacle of play. However, imagination isn’t concrete – it’s invisible in your head. So sharing an imagination requires lots of social thinking skills to make it work.

Conclusion: an evaluation of navigating social conflict

Once you have had a play session, give each other feedback on how well you used these 10 key concepts. What did you do really well? And what do you need to work on? Eventually, with lots of practice, you can become confident in navigating social conflict.

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