Friend or Friendly: What Does Age Have To Do with It?

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In my social pragmatic language groups I target a wide variety of social communication goals for children with varying levels and degrees of impairment with a focus on improving their social pragmatic language competence.  In the past I have written blog posts on a variety of social  pragmatic language therapy topics, including strategies for improving students’ emotional intelligence as well as on how to teach students to develop insight into own strengths and weaknesses.  Today I wanted to discuss the importance of teaching students with social communication impairments, age recognition for friendship and safety purposes.

Now it is important to note that the focus of my sessions is a bit different from the focus of “teaching protective behaviors”, “circles of intimacy and relationships” or “teaching kids to deal with tricky people. Rather the goal is to teach the students to recognize who it is okay “to hang out” or be friends with, and who is considered to be too old/too young to be a friend.

Why is it important to teach age recognition?

There are actually quite a few reasons.

Firstly, it is a fairly well-known fact that in the absence of age-level peers with similar weaknesses, students with social communication deficits will seek out either much younger or much older children as playmates/friends as these individuals are far less likely to judge them for their perceived social deficits. While this may be a short-term solution to the “friendship problem” it also comes with its own host of challenges.  By maintaining relationships with peers outside of their age group, it is difficult for children with social communication impairments to understand and relate to peers of their age group in school setting. This creates a wider chasm in the classroom and increases the risk of peer isolation and bullying.

Secondly, the difficulty presented by friendships significantly outside of one’s peer group, is  the risk of, for lack of better words, ‘getting into trouble’. This may include but is not limited to exploring own sexuality (which is perfectly normal) with a significantly younger child (which can be problematic) or be instigated by an older child/adolescent in doing something inappropriate (e.g, shoplifting, drinking, smoking, exposing self to peers, etc.).

Thirdly, this difficulty (gauging people’s age) further exacerbates the students’ social communication deficits as it prevents them from effectively understanding such pragmatic parameters such as audience (e.g., with whom its appropriate to use certain language in a certain tone and with whom it is not) and topic (with whom it is appropriate to discuss certain subjects and with whom it is not).

So due to the above reasons I began working on age recognition with the students (6+ years of age) on my caseload diagnosed with social communication and language impairments.   I mention language impairments because it is very important to understand that more and more research is coming out connecting language impairments with social communication deficits. Therefore it’s not just students on the autism spectrum or students with social pragmatic deficits (an official DSM-5 diagnosis) who have difficulties in the area of social communication. Students with language impairments could also benefit from services focused on improving their social communication skills.

I begin my therapy sessions on age recognition by presenting the students with photos of people of different ages and asking them to attempt to explain how old do they think the people in the pictures are and what visual clues and/or prior knowledge assisted them in the formulation of their responses. I typically select the pictures from some of the social pragmatic therapy materials packets that I had created over the years (e.g., Gauging Moods, Are You Being Social?, Multiple Interpretations, etc.).

I make sure to carefully choose my pictures based on the student’s age and experience to ensure that the student has at least some degree of success making guesses.  So for a six-year-old I would select pictures of either toddlers or children his/her age to begin teaching them recognition of concepts: “same” and “younger” (e.g., Social Pragmatic Photo Bundle for Early Elementary Aged Children).

Kids playing in the room

For older children, I vary the photos of different aged individuals significantly.  I also introduce relevant vocabulary words as related to a particular age demographic, such as:

  • Infant (0-1 years of age)
  • Toddler (2-3 years of age)
  • Preschooler (3-5 years of age)
  • Teenager (individual between 13-19 years of age)
  • Early, mid and late 20s, 30s, 40s
  • Middle-aged (individuals around 50 years of age)
  • Senior/senior citizen (individuals ~65+ years of age)

I explain to the students that people of different ages look differently and teach them how to identify relevant visual clues to assist them with making educated guesses about people’s ages.  I also use photos of my own family or ask the students to bring in their own family photos to use for age determination of people in the presented pictures.  When students learn the ages of their own family members, they have an easier time determining the age ranges of strangers.

My next step is to explain to students the importance of understanding people’s ages.  I present to the students a picture of an individual significantly younger or older than them and ask them whether it’s appropriate to be that person’s friend.   Here students with better developed insight will state that it is not appropriate to be that person’s friend because they have nothing in common with them and do not share their interests. In contrast, students with limited insight will state that it’s perfectly okay to be that person’s friend.

This is the perfect teachable moment for explaining the difference between “friend” and “friendly”. Here I again reiterate that people of different ages have significantly different interests as well as have significant differences in what they are allowed to do (e.g., a 16-year-old is allowed to have a driver’s permit in many US states as well as has a later curfew while an 11-year-old clearly doesn’t).  I also explain that it’s perfectly okay to be friendly and polite with older or younger people in social situations (e.g., say hello all, talk, answer questions, etc.) but that does not constitute true friendship.

I also ask students to compile a list of qualities of what they look for in a “friend” as well as have them engage in some perspective taking (e.g, have them imagine that they showed up at a toddler’s house and asked to play with him/her, or that a teenager came into their house, and what their parents reaction would be?).

Finally, I discuss with students the importance of paying attention to who wants to hang out/be friends with them as well as vice versa (individuals they want to hang out with) in order to better develop their insight into the appropriateness of relationships. I instruct them to think critically when an older individual (e.g,  young adult) wants to get particularly close to them.  I use examples from an excellent post written by a colleague and good friend, Maria Del Duca of Communication Station Blog re: dealing with tricky people, in order to teach them to recognize signs of individuals crossing the boundary of being friendly, and what to do about it.

So there you have it. These are some of the reasons why I teach age recognition to clients with social communication weaknesses. Do you teach age recognition to your clients? If so, comment under this post, how do you do it and what materials do you use?

Helpful Smart Speech Resources Related to Assessment and Treatment of Social Pragmatic Disorders 

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