At the age of nine, Victoria is the type of child who the other girls in her class describe as "a bit weird". There's something about her body language – and the way she "hovers" at the edge of their games, but doesn't join in – which makes them uncomfortable.There are always ‘outsiders’. People who don’t fit in, who can’t quite ‘get’ relationships.
‘Twas ever thus.
Behind her back, although never to her face, the other children complain that Victoria is a "show-off" because she talks "at" them instead of listening to what they say. So at break-time, Victoria often finds she has no-one to play with.Which is sad, but what can anyone do?
For Victoria's mother, Amanda, it's painful to watch. "Because Victoria is bright, I used to think she was just grown-up for her age, preferred talking to adults and that she'd grow out it. But now it's so heartbreaking to see her being left out of all the parties and sleepovers I know are happening in Year Four. She tells me she prefers adults and she doesn't care what people think of her, but I feel like I am a failure. I worry for her future, too. Girls her age can be very judgemental – and once you get labelled as weird it's hard to escape that tag."Enter the ‘experts’:
Yet until now, it's always been assumed making friends is something that young people should learn to do by themselves – even if some are naturally better at it than others. Now that idea is being turned on its head by a new approach that treats problems forming social relationships in the same way as a learning difficulty, like dyslexia.*sigh*
Attracting the same sort of research grants, allowances, recognition for the ‘experts’, perhaps?
Just as those children can't make sense of the letters they see on a page, unpopular children also have problems understanding and interpreting social cues others use.So they must be ‘disabled’, right? And there must be people making a living out of…
Ah. Right on cue:
… in the same way as techniques have been developed to help with those with academic learning difficulties, there are now skills that can aid children with poor social interaction, according to American child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner, who first devised the Social Thinking programme to teach "bright but socially clueless students" at high schools in California. Her methods aim to help children become aware of how to act "acceptably" to others. Her ideas are rapidly gaining currency here and are being taught to teachers and parents at the New Learning Centre in North London.First, America (home of the ‘worried well’), next, the world!
Janis -Norton says: "Having poor social skills is a learning difficulty that needs to be addressed. These kids are also wrongly seen by teachers as deliberately obstructionist in class – for example, because they don't understand that a suggestion is actually an instruction. In fact the part of their brain that is supposed to interpret these signals is wired differently. When they realise this, both teachers and parents often feel very guilty that they once got so angry or impatient with them. But it's like getting angry with someone with a limp."Of course it is. It’d be cruel to do so, right. The fault clearly must lie with everyone else…
Looking back at our own schooldays, most of us remember the loner in our class who nobody wanted to play with at break-time. But Janis-Norton is hopeful it's a curse that shouldn't befall future generations. "It's tragic how many children have been ostracised because of this neurological trait in the past. Yet so many other children can be spared from suffering in the same way."And when you’ve eliminated all normal human variation, or at least, ‘explained’ it away as a disability, what then?
Will you have eliminated everything that makes us human?