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by Dr. Jed Baker
Just 15 years ago, Dr. Jed Baker discovered a child with Asperger’s syndrome among the New Jersey public school students who was participating in the University of Medicine and Dentistry School-based Programs.
Asperger’s syndrome is a complex disorder, often defined as a high-functioning form of autism. It is characterised by a lack of social common sense, things like how to play or make friends or pick up social cues. As a result, an Asperger’s child usually has difficulty in interacting with others. “Many children just don’t pick up intuitively on how to make friends,” he explained. “Some want to, but we need to teach those kids how.”
Baker concluded the Asperger’s student he had found needed a group with whom to learn interaction and social skills, “but, when we looked for something, we discovered there was nothing at that time.”
Not to be deterred by the total lack of such a group’s existence, Baker began a single group. The group evolved and subsequently expanded into multiple groups. He organised those into the Social Skills Training Project, a family therapy and consultative services practice for families of students with social-communication difficulties.
“It never occurred to me there was such a huge need,” he muses. Although no one knows the reasons why, autism has grown by gargantuan proportions in the last decade. In the United States alone, autism grew by 172% compared to a 16% growth rate in all disabilities in the same period (and a 13% growth rate in the U.S. population). In some school districts, such as California’s, the autistic growth has been 273% (data gathered by the Autism Society of America).
During the same period, Baker began work in an autism program at Northern Valley Regional High School District and developed The Social Skills Picture Book. It is based on the premise that “seeing is learning.”
The Social Skills Picture Book immediately zoomed to the top of the chart in books on autism and Asperger’s because it provides a teaching tool that “engages the attention and motivation of students who need help learning appropriate social skills”.
It demonstrates through pictures nearly 30 social skills, such as conversation, play, emotion management and empathy. “Children of all ages learn more effectively when pictures are used to supplement verbal descriptions and instructions,” Baker contends. “It’s particularly effective, or most helpful, when people build their own picture books, because they can see themselves in the book.”
The book is not only valuable for autistic children. “We’ve discovered that what is helpful for kids with autism is also helpful for most kids,” explains Baker. “That’s because breaking down skills into basic components is a good way for all to learn social skills.” For example, there’s a picture in the book of two children at a lunchroom table, where one of them is eating. The book tells the child that, to be sociable, he first could ask a question about what the other student is doing. “What are you eating?” asks one. “A bagel,” answers the other.
Then, the book tells the child it is beneficial (socially) to ask follow-up questions about the activity, like “How does it taste?” “Almost anyone can benefit from these basics,” explains Baker. “If a child is not initiating play, talking to or looking at his peers, he may need parental and/or professional intervention, the earlier the better.”
Most children need and usually want social skills to make friends, and, often, their level of happiness and productivity is dependant on these fundamentals. The Social Skills Picture Book attempts to teach these critical social skills by visually showing children what to do.
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