social skills

Pro vs. Noob

With nearly all of my kids, we talk so much about “smart guesses” vs. “wacky guesses” – a concept that applies in social situations as well as academics. For example, if someone tells you, “You’d better bring your umbrella today,” a smart guess about why they said that, is, It’s probably going to rain today. A wacky guess would be, It’s going to be a beautiful sunny day. If a history book says, “By the end of the war, the population was down 20,000 people,” a smart guess about why would be, People died from the fighting in the war, where a wacky guess would be, All of those people moved away to Antarctica.

Essentially, we’re talking about inferences. Situations where information is not explicitly stated, but you use your prior knowledge plus situational information to make a guess about what’s going on. We do this all the time and don’t think twice about it. Our kids have a much harder time with it step-by-step, let alone automatically.

In my sessions with Nellie, we talk about this constantly. So, when we do reading comprehension practice, we talk about making smart guesses by looking back to the text. When we do social inferencing activities, we talk about making smart guesses to figure out what someone is thinking. We’ve been talking about this for years.

Nellie is obsessed with Minecraft – and she’s good at it. She has her own server, she has responsibility within the game, she is successful and happy when playing it; it’s something that makes her shine. Given the option, she would talk about it for our entire session. She has explained to me that in Minecraft there are rankings, and terms for the levels of players. She is considered a “Pro” – professional. Players who have just started playing, and don’t really know what they’re doing, are considered “Noobs” in Minecraft (“newbies”). Sometimes the “noobs” are spotted easily because they do things that others wouldn’t do – like make a house out of dirt (a very weak material), whereas the “pros” are noticed for using stronger materials and better strategies. She explained how a Noob is someone who just doesn’t know how to do it yet, and a Pro knows the techniques and strategies.

So one day, I forget the context, but we were talking about something unexpected, and I was trying to explain why it’s a wacky thing to do, and Nellie just looked at me and said, “That’s such a NOOB thing to do.”

Boom. Lightbulb. It clicked.

From then on, I switched my language, and she took to it immediately. Everything we did, we talked about the Pro way to do it and the Noob way to do it. Nellie is someone who continues to work on matching reaction size to the size of the problem. She’s a kid who might get grumpy about not going first, despite the fact that she’s almost in high school. She might have a huge reaction if someone bumps into her in the hall. She’s LOVES the silly 911 script. We added to it by saying that having a huge reaction to a small problem (like when our printer didn’t work the other day) would be a Noob thing to do, and a Pro reaction would be to just say, oh, well.

When we do our reading comprehension work now, Nellie makes Pro guesses, not Noob guesses.

When we work with another student, we talk about how making unexpected/odd comments in the middle of the conversation is a Noob thing to do, and a Pro thing to do is hold those thoughts in her thought bubble.

More often than not, she’s the one bringing it up, not me.

She laughs and laughs each time she gets to say, “That’s a NOOB thing to do!” And it’s working. She’ll sometimes see me in the hall and quickly tell me something Noob or Pro that happened.

Our kids always, ALWAYS have a way of learning, a way of making sense of what’s going on. Sometimes they’re the ones that teach us the best way to do it. I never would’ve thought of using Pro vs. Noob terminology – and honestly, if it had been my idea, it probably wouldn’t have worked. This is why following their lead is the way to go. This is why we use their special interests. This is why we build on their scripts. This is why we meet them halfway. This.


When I notice a behavior in a student, I think about it. I spend time analyzing, thinking, hypothesizing. There’s almost always a reason the behavior is occurring; it’s like a puzzle and I want to solve it.

So I’ve been thinking about Bella, one of my little elementary-schoolers – adorable Bella, with significant communication and social difficulties, among other challenges. A lot of the behaviors Bella exhibits, the things she says, or the games she plays, might remind you of what your preschooler says. But that’s not the concerning part. Bella acts the way she does, because that’s where she’s at developmentally. When a child didn’t yet have language, or any sort of interaction skills in preschool, they never got the chance to go through the phases of sharing, turn-taking, cooperation. They might not have had the experiences of having a toy grabbed out of their hands, grabbing at someone else’s toy, crying because they lost a game, getting angry when they can’t go first. So sometimes, we see those behaviors at age 9, because now they’re there.

Bella has been mean lately, to her friends. And I’ve been thinking – trying to figure out why she’s acting mean. And the other day, I watched through a different lens, and it clicked.

Bella and her friend Nicole came into speech the other day. When I asked how her weekend was, Bella told me that she had gone to a playground with Nicole.

“I went down the slide!” Bella told me excitedly, arms flapping.

“I went down the slide, too!” Nicole added.

Bella stopped flapping. She glared at Nicole. I watched.

“I also swung on the swings,” Nicole said.

Bella slammed her hands down on the table. “I swung on the swings! STOP COPYING ME!!”

Nicole looked at me, and then back at Bella. “I’m not copying you, Bella. We went together! We did the same things together!”


When I thought back to when Bella gets upset, the pattern emerged. She gets “grumpy” and gets “Mean Jean” in her head when she perceives a friend to be copying her. And during those times, the friend is not copying her. The friend is agreeing with her, sharing a similar opinion, talking about a shared experience, or adding to the conversation.

While we often see kids get frustrated when someone has a different opinion (e.g., You can’t like tomatoes! Tomatoes are disgusting!), this is a little different in presentation. But it comes down to the same principle – understanding that different people have thoughts in their heads. Those thoughts might be the same as ours or different than ours, but everyone’s brain thinks its own thoughts.

So, I whipped up a social story, and the next time I saw her, she and I read it together:

When we were done, we played with some animal figurines, and Bella processed what we had just read by acting it out. My monkey figurine kept accusing her duck of copying me. Then the bear teacher reminded the monkey that two animals could have the same thought. Then during recess, the monkey and duck talked about movies and games that they liked. They realized that when they liked the same things, it was fun.

It’s a struggle for Bella to generalize much of anything she learns. Chances are good that we will need to read this again, and again, and again. And play, and act it out, and give her chances to practice.

The ultimate take home message – there’s always a why. Bella is not innately a mean kid. She’s not going through a mean streak. There is a reason she gets angry and frustrated about certain things.

There are locks, and there are keys, and some are clear and some are hidden, but we look. We don’t ever stop looking until we find them, put them together, and figure them out.

So. Let them play.

The characters: a thirteen-year-old 7th grader and a ten-year-old 5th grader. Both cognitively impaired, to a degree. One with a syndrome. One with severe ADHD. Both with language disorders.

The setting: free play time, on the rug, with a huge box of Legos.

The two play together so well. They dig through the Lego bin together. They take turns digging, as both of their sets of hands don’t fit at the same time. Did you hear that? They take turns. They realize when they need to wait. Please tell me you get how big that is. Over the weeks they’ve developed favorite Lego pieces, favorite characters. They hand each other the ones they know the other likes. I know. It’s huge. Their favorite thing to do is find all of the characters and set them up. Sometimes making them look funny, with a mis-matched outfit, or two heads stacked on each other. They say to each other, “Hey Arianna, look at this!!!” They share with each other. They want to show each other things. They giggle loudly, together, when something is funny. Occasionally they call me over, wanting to show me something one or the other found or created. But mostly, they play on their own. Together.

Here’s the thing. I know there are people out there, various people of various professions, who would say, very confidently, “None of this is age-appropriate.” Such people would talk about how pretend play should be a thing of the past. They might add that a thirteen-year-old girl should be connecting with other thirteen-year-old girls, and that a ten-year-old boy shouldn’t be her go-to playmate.

But can say very confidently, that those people would be wrong. There are no “shoulds”.

Yes, pretend play fades out at a certain age in most neurotypical brains. And yes, most individuals with neurotypically-developing brains would connect with peers their own age. And yes, maybe those individuals wouldn’t sit together showing each other Legos, passing characters back-and-forth, and giggling about it.

But. These two kids don’t have neurotypically-developing brains. So why place neurotypical demands on them? And guess what else? While pretend play develops for so many kids in toddlerhood, it didn’t for these kids. So they’re catching up. Their brains are filling in the steps that they missed. These are kids who didn’t know how to connect. Didn’t make those friendships, didn’t have language until they were in elementary school. So, of course they’re still doing pretend play. They never had.

If I learned a new language right now, that I had never learned before, I’d be at the one-word and two-word stage. I’d sound like a toddler, trying to communicate, in telegraphic speech. Sure, maybe I could memorize a few phrases. But  that would be about it. You would never say to me, “Jen, you’re 27. You need to be speaking in sentences and conveying your thoughts in a much more eloquent way. You need to connect with other adults your age and talk with them.” It’s no different with my kids. They’re not going to magically skip developmental steps that everyone else goes through. And why would we expect them to?

To the people who expect them to “fit in” and participate in “age-appropriate” conversations and activities – the reason that they don’t is because they can’t. Because they’re not there yet. And maybe they’ll get there and maybe they won’t. But whatever happens – let’s just celebrate where they’re at. The new skills they’re developing and applying – it’s no less significant than a baby learning to point. It’s just happening at a different time.

So. Let them play. Let them script. Let them laugh. Let them be thirteen-years-old and need to learn how to use words and not push. Let them be ten-years-old and learn about compromising. Because, their brains need to. Because, their brains never did. Because, they’re learning. Because, they’re connecting. Far better than forcing them to sit and talk about things that they don’t understand and things that they don’t care about.

And if you worry about them not fitting in? They do fit in. Just maybe not with whom you expected them to. But that’s okay. We all make different friends. We all have different connections. The important thing here is that they do fit in. They have peers. They have playmates. And that’s worth embracing. That’s what matters.

Google Glass: Brain Power for autism

My dad sent me this article, knowing I would have thoughts. The article is called, “Can an app for Google Glass offer a path out of autism?”

I become suspicious, immediately, of anything promising to “cure” or “fix” or “save kids from” autism. So, my defenses were immediately engaged.

I have read a little bit about Google Glass over the last year or so, but am certainly no expert on the technology, nor do I claim to be. But, the idea, at least as I understood it, is this app (called “Brain Power”) would be used to encourage autistic children to make eye contact. The app flashes cartoon characters on the screen where another individual’s face is (e.g., a parent), to “lure” their eyes up to the individual’s eyes. Essentially, tricking them into making eye contact. Once they look up, they receive points, and the character is taken away.

First of all – I am a huge fan of technology. Almost every single one of my students use it for learning in some form, and I believe its implications are limitless. So my issue with Brain Power is not the fact that it’s technology. In fact, I believe that Google Glass in general could absolutely be added to the arsenal of tools that benefit our autistic kids.

Several things bother me. For starters, I have said many times, and it is no secret that I believe, that autism is not a “condition”, is not a “problem”, is not an “epidemic.” And I have a lot of reservations for a company who operates with this fundamental belief, as Brain Power seems to. Autism comes with its challenges, but so does neurotypicalism.

The next issue is what Brain Power is aiming to do. Is it REALLY aiming to improve social communication, and social thinking skills? Or is yet another behavioral approach, aimed at reducing certain behaviors? Because I am thinking the latter. I believe in Social Thinking, in teaching social communication, at breaking down the fundamentals to help our kids understand social interaction. I teach it every day of the year, and I’m all for it. But teaching kids how to interact, why to interact, is not the same as a strict behavioral approach. We are not requiring our kids to do something without helping them understand why.

Another app digitally accentuates the person’s eyes to attract attention, because autistic children are known to focus on the speaker’s mouth.

Well, I can’t tell you how many autistic kids and adults have expressed that they can’t make eye contact, because it’s too damn painful. We actually teach kids to look at a mouth, or a nose, or an ear – we teach them to fake it, that no, we aren’t going to force them into making direct eye contact, but by looking in the general direction of someone’s face, they are still showing that they’re listening, paying attention, showing interest. Yes, there are kids who truly don’t understand the concept of why they would need to look at someone’s face to begin with. So we start there. But it’s not looked at as a problem to be fixed. Of all of the zillions of challenges that come with autism, I have never, nor do I know anyone who has ever, thought, “Oh! You know what? A really important thing that we need to fix is make all of our kids make eye contact.” Because it’s just not crucial. Communicating wants and needs is. Coping strategies for anxiety is. Making the world functional and accessible is.

And I wonder, why is Brain Power so intent on increasing eye contact? Is it truly because they think it’s better for the autistic kids themselves, for the kids’ quality of life, or is it to try and fit our kids into a mold of “normal” that in reality doesn’t exist? Do their beliefs come from the same people who believe that we should eliminate scripting and stimming? Who are they really looking to benefit here?

The article concludes with:

Attending were Sara Gaynor, a special-education teacher, and her 11-year-old son, Sean. After trying out Glass, Gaynor said her son told her: “They’re awesome. I think those glasses make me smarter.”

Later, Gaynor recounted how Sean jumped up, arms outreached, and told her, “I think I am breaking out of an autism prison!”

I don’t know Sara Gaynor. I don’t know her son. I do believe that he liked the glasses. Like I said, I think a lot of kids would. I think the glasses hold great potential. But the way in which this quote was written into the article makes it sound like glasses = smarter, because autism = dumb. And Sean’s quote at the end? I don’t know how much I believe that this boy truly said those words. But if he did, it breaks my heart. Because it means he was raised believing his autism is a prison. And what implications for any autistic kid reading that article – to plant the thought in their own heads that their neurology, their wiring, is something so terrible that it should be compared to a prison.

I need to do more research, I need to read more about the company and their studies and their beliefs. Again, I do not claim to be an expert on this, to understand all of it, to fully know every detail about how the app would work. But at first glance, I am more than a little concerned.

To the mom I met last weekend

Hi. I’m so glad that Charlie* is coming to our summer program this year. I’m so glad you brought him to the meet and greet a few days ago.

I know you were worried. When I sat down next to you, while Charlie was with his summer group and summer counselors, you gave me a tense smile and said, “I’m so embarrassed. He keeps saying bathroom words.” You went on to explain how awful he was behaving. That no other kids were saying poop or fart in response to questions. That during the year he had worked with his speech-language therapist who had provided him with social stories that were effective, and the bathroom talk had been extinguished. That you were petrified that it had returned.

When I gave you a smile and told you that this was SO common, that I had seen it a million times, I wasn’t trying to make light of your fears. I really was telling the truth. When I told you that potty talk doesn’t make any of us bat an eye, I was telling the truth. When I told you that it makes perfect sense that he’d resort to potty talk today, I was telling the truth. Charlie is 5 years old. Five year olds love potty talk. It’s silly and goofy and it’s a fun way for them to make each other laugh and connect. Charlie also happens to have an autism spectrum diagnosis. He has language, but anxiety and fear prevail over language. He was put into a new environment, with new kids, and new staff, for the first time all year. That would make ME nervous! So Charlie turned to the words that are easy for him, that he knows, that he could easily access. And those happened to be “poop” and “fart.” I promise you, this is the truth. I promise you, not a single one of us ever thought, or even will think, that he is “poorly behaved,” “trouble-causing,” or “disrespectful.”

When you left and told me, “Charlie said he loves this place!” I was thrilled. That was our goal for the meet-and-greet. To get each and every kiddo feeling like, yes, this is a place they will be safe and have fun this summer. You then followed it up with your disclaimer and fears, “But, he didn’t listen to a word anyone said.” My reply: “But he sat with the other kids. He kept his body in the group. He kept his body safe. He shared some laughs and some words. So from our point of view? It was a huge success.”

I was telling the truth.

We will work with Charlie all summer. We will help him find and access his language. We will teach him the “expected” and “unexpected” times to use potty talk. We will provide him with words and visuals to help him share his thoughts even if verbal expression isn’t accessible.

We are thrilled Charlie is here. We are thrilled you are here. You are in the right place.

I am telling you the truth.



*not his real name

“What do I tell him?”

The mom of a 7-year-old kiddo who I just started seeing in a social pragmatics group, approached me before group this week.

Glancing at her son, she whispered, “He’s asking why he has to come to this group. What do I tell him?”

Such a common question. The parents I work with want what’s best for their children. Especially when they are in the early stages of an autism-related diagnosis, they are anxious and worried. They don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. They want to protect their child, yet empower him.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that while yes, I am a professional, nobody knows their child better than a parent does. So it’s a parents’ decision as to what to say or do. However, I do have my opinions. And I shared them with this mom.

I told her that we will get to talking about it in group, in a few weeks, once we’ve established some sort of cohesion and a sense of safety between the boys and me. I told her that when we do talk about it, we talk about how everyone has things that are easier for them and harder for them. I told her how I always, right off the bat, use the example that I’m really good at reading, but drawing is hard for me. Inevitably, one of the kids always replies, “I’m so good at drawing!!!” and I use that to say, “That’s great! It’s harder for me, but that’s okay.” And that opens up a discussion of everyone sharing what is easy and hard for them.

I explained that our kids are smart. And that even if they don’t know, diagnostically, that they have social-cognitive difficulties, they know it on an intuitive level. They’re aware that it doesn’t come as easy to them. They’ve felt frustration and sadness and confusion. And I firmly believe that it’s validating to know that others recognize it, that it’s okay, and that there are groups and ways to help make it easier.

Mom said, “Yes! That’s what I told him! I said that he’s so smart at things like math and science, but the social stuff can be harder for him sometimes. Is that okay? I don’t want him to feel like I’m pointing out his faults.”

I told her that in my opinion, yes, it’s absolutely okay. There’s a difference between accusing, and pointing out failures, and factually acknowledging strengths and weaknesses. I told her that when we keep it a secret, when we lie to our kids or tell them fakely, with a big smile on our face, “There is nothing wrong with you!! You have so many friends, all the kids like you,” that they know that something is off. It’s validating to hear, “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for other kids too. It’s not a big deal.”

I always tell my kids and students that even for people who “social stuff” comes easier for, have difficulty here and there. I explain that what’s tricky for me is to sit back and let others talk sometimes.  And that’s okay. And I then ask, “Does that ever happen to anyone else?” And I validate anything they say. And if they say, “Sometimes I get frustrated with friends” or “Sometimes I don’t know what to say in a conversation,” I let them know that I get it. That I feel that way too, sometimes, and that probably other kids do, too.

It’s a big deal in that we want to help our kids get to a level of succeeding, we don’t want to ignore their challenges. But it’s not a big deal in that it’s not a huge secret. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Validate them for our kids. Let them know that we get it, that it’s not a “bad” thing. That we all struggle sometimes. That we’re going to help them as best we can.

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