The Yes and No of Social Navigation Work with Neurodivergent Children

The term “social navigation” functions as an umbrella term, covering a wide scope and variety of social related awareness, strengths, needs, and experiences which range from simple to more complex. A person’s social navigation is often interpersonal, specific behaviors that involves an individual in interaction (or lack thereof) with others in an environment. The extent to which an individual would be considered to have social navigation needs is debated and often carries an ableist perception. This is especially true for neurodivergent children and adolescents as they have often been judged by a neurotypical standard and expectation.

Historically “social skills work” has been devaluing and harmful to neurodivergent individuals. Some programs and methods have used the term “social skills” to implement protocol that has not valued differences and forced neurodivergent children to try and become something they are not, which has produced poor self-worth, depression, anxiety, and in some cases trauma.

Many social expectations involve a great deal of nuance which can be confusing. Many neurodivergent children get labeled as not understanding “social skills.” Often this is due to a conditioned expected performance and if that is not demonstrated, the erroneous belief is that the child must not understand and needs to learn/change.

Neurodivergent children can have social related needs. Helping children with social related needs can be an important component of therapy. If needs are left unaddressed it can create a myriad of additional issues. Given the history, ableist tendencies and often silliness of what is being called needed social skills, it is important to understand a few constructs when addressing social navigation needs.

1) What is considered social (skills, expectations, norms, navigation) will vary from family to family, city to city, region to region, country to country, and culture to culture. It is a subjective construct; it is a societal made-up concept.

2) It is an invented construct by someone or a group who decides what is and is not okay, appropriate, expected, etc. It has historically been someone or a group in power who determined the “right way” to navigate, thus, leaving out any input or social tendencies of marginalized people.

3) A neurodivergent child should not be forced to perform a certain social “skill” because it is what has been deemed the norm. Much of this is based on a neurotypical construct which has not valued differences or a different way of navigating.

4) Often the issue is an inflexible, unkind, and rigid environment or person the child is experiencing. It is not an actual social problem with the child, the problem is with others and there may need to be advocacy implemented on behalf of the child.

A child’s specific social needs should be carefully assessed and always addressed through a neurodiversity affirming process. If possible, the child should have a clear voice in communicating what they believe their social needs are and what they would like to work on. Consider the following questions. Does working on the social need help the child better achieve what they want? Does working on the social need address an issue/struggle the child is having? Who’s need is it, the child’s, or someone else’s? Does the therapeutic process implemented clearly stay affirming for the child and avoid reinforcing masking, camouflaging, and devaluing the child’s identity?

When implementing a group or individual therapy focused on social interaction and work/needs, it is vital to check your process and make sure it is always affirming of the person of the child and their ways of being, preferences, and differences. Ableist practices are not okay and addressing a “social skill deficit” at the expense of the child’s self-worth and mental health is never appropriate.

For more information on this topic check out my home study course Social Navigation Needs and Play Therapyhttps://courses.jentaylorplaytherapy.com/courses/social-navigation-needs


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