As a speech-language pathologist who has treated children with autism for more than 15 years, I recently noticed the socially inept displays of supposed neurotypicals around me. I began to realize what a daunting task it is to address social skills for students or clients living in a culture acting more socially inappropriate by the day. I asked myself: “Does everyone need social skills treatment?”
I’m continually amazed at the lack of regard people have for keeping personal details personal on social media, for example. On Facebook, 500 or more “friends” might read posts about cheating spouses, bitterness toward a child’s teacher or vague shaming statements intended to provoke. Most people consider any topic fair game even with a huge, diverse audience embracing vastly different belief systems.
No conversation filters get used for posts I call: “As the Facebook World Turns.” I wonder if photo-enhancing tools are the only “filters” people find necessary. Can’t we limit posts to our travel adventures, adorable children, cute pets, and beautifully presented dinner entrees? Am I publicly ranting about public rants? Apparently, I am.
Social missteps online or in real-time situations can have devastating consequences on relationships. During social skills sessions with middle school students, I created a logical system to help warn them about possible social missteps: a step-by-step method to filter their words. We apply these filters to verbal and online conversations. A traffic-light visual helps us decide which topics (with personalized pitfalls) belong in which category for general audiences:
Red light = inappropriate
Examples: mocking disabilities, bodily functions, Howard Stern expressions (personalized for a student)
Yellow light = use caution
Examples: sicknesses, smells/tastes, slang terms
Sensitive areas = yellow or red light, depending on the comment. Examples: culture, politics, religion, violence
Green light = go
Examples: family vacations, age-appropriate video games, favorite books
My students now fully grasp this system and consequently transformed themselves into the “inappropriate police” for each other. They frequently declare things like, “Your comment was so red-light just now!” The traffic-light analogy eventually became a crucial component of my FILTER approach, which helps students remember the aspects of a socially appropriate conversation:
F – Facial clues: look for information about how someone is feeling.
I – Inappropriate: avoid “red light” comments and topics.
L – Listen: tune in to the person talking and tune out distractions.
T – Target: are you hitting or missing the target in conversation?
E – End the conversation (and start it) at the right time.
R – Repair mistakes made in conversation.
Our students get exposed to overly personal, unfiltered posts and tweets every day. This behavior makes them think our society uses and accepts controversial banter. In this climate, SLPs try to teach appropriate social skills, while society seemingly works against us. Most teenagers can adjust to scenarios and determine when to filter, like when talking to teachers, co-workers or employers. However, students with autism might carry unfiltered communication over into daily interactions, so we need to clearly define the potential negative consequences of this behavior.
I pose these questions to students to help them understand when to use a social filter:
- Could offensive comments made publicly result in angry responses?
- Could a person’s reputation get permanently damaged by posting something inappropriate?
- Could an irritated “friend” unfriend, unfollow, or block the unfiltered person?
- Could an employer choose not to hire someone due to insensitive remarks or posts?
- Could a romantic interest view controversial opinions and choose not to date someone?
- Could someone avoid you due to unfiltered (written or verbal) communication?
Survival in our world still relies upon adequate social skills. We should all understand, accept and practice the process of filtering thoughts before communicating them. Our young, technology-driven generation will undoubtedly need to hear this message as social skills continue to deteriorate in society. Due to frequent complaints regarding social inappropriateness among students, I also shared the FILTER concept with our middle school gifted program.
I now ask myself: “Could my students with autism become more aware and better prepared socially than their neurotypical peers?”
Stephanie D. Sanders, MA, CCC-SLP, has worked in the Brevard (Florida) County public schools for 15 years and previously specialized in pediatric rehabilitation through private practice. She recently published a book about her social skills techniques, “The F.I.L.T.E.R. Approach: Social Communication Skills for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Learn more about her approach at www.thefilterapproach.com or email her at email@example.com.