Understanding neurodivergent social skills

Many neurodivergent people have had the experience of trying to fit in as normal, and never quite doing it right. Trying to mask oddities and mannerisms to fit in with the cool kids, only to have them see through the ruse and see that it's not an authentic representation of their personality, and that experience creating more isolation. Then, after failing to fit in with the 'cool kids,' they find their group of weird friends that fully accepts the weirdness, and start building lifetime friendships.

This is the basis of understanding neurodivergent social skills. When doing social skills coaching, it's important to understand that while it is important to teach the social skills that are helpful for neurotypical setting, it's also important to look at social skills that help when getting along with other neurodivergent youth. Like any developmental social skill, it's important to get practice and understand what works in building those relationships. It's the difference between knowing how to effectively mask, and how to make taking the mask off with accepting peers a good experience.

So what are neurotypical social skills? These are things like building teamwork, communicating effectively, being aware of other's social cues and norms, and building perspective taking. These are fundamentally about acknowledging areas that neurodivergence can create challenges around, and creating experiences to practice these skills that don't come naturally.

So then, what are neurodivergent social skills?

Narrowing this down is something that is rather difficult to do, but here's what I have seen as emergent development of neurodivergent social skills throughout years of running the group. These are things that have happened often times with little intervention or effort on my behalf, but instead through what the students build organically to help each other thanks to carefully creating a supportive environment where these skills can be built.

The first neurodivergent social skill is self advocacy. I witnessed this one after setting up the group discord, and coming home one day to see the kids discussing how to deal with teachers who were not supportive of their needs (or downright insulting.) They discussed how to take it to the principle, how to talk to parents about it, and how to deal with the stress that comes from being singled out. By allowing kids to build the ability to self advocate, you're setting them for lifelong success.

Next is peer education. I recently had a student write a full essay to another student on understanding my perspective as a DM. The student had been getting frustrated with the fact that I wouldn't just give him everything he wanted right off the bat, and the other student wrote an essay discussing how I wasn't being cruel, I just wanted to maintain storyline cohesion. He explained that I was absolutely open to new ideas, but it would be a 'yes, but' or 'yes, and' scenario, and that my goal was to create plot points that the entire group could engage with. Afterwards, the student in question would DM me with various questions, and ask 'I want this to happen to my character, how can we work it into the story?'

Then comes celebrating neurodivergent communication. The students being able to infodump and engage in rabbit hole discussions around esoteric details has been beautiful to see. I've seen students write pages and pages of equations on how to use a handful of spells to stop the rotating core of the planet, students sharing special interests and finding a safe space to do so, and expressing affection in ways that do not resemble neurotypical conventions, but are immensely rewarding and build strong friendships.

Another big one is supporting each other through missteps. I've had kids pull major faux pas that impacted game or the group, and seen them suddenly turtle up when they realize they did something wrong, full or shame and fear. Seeing the kids suddenly rally around said kid and tell them that it's okay, and that there's no harm done, and that they accept them is truly beautiful.

Finally, there's removing the stigma. I've watched the kids describe their experiences with autism, only to have the rest of the group say "Oh yeah I totally get that," and suddenly they're all commiserating together. Creating a space where they can vent that to a receptive and supportive audience is so rewarding.

There are countless other emergent neurodivergent social skills that I've seen, but those are the big ones. And the best way to build these social skills is to create a table that is accepting, supportive, and trusting. This takes time, and one of the benefits of having a long running group is you have that benefit. Having a group discord creates fertile ground for that as well. But at it's core is the understanding that while you are a coach to teach neurotypical social skills, you are not there to change who they are fundamentally. Instead, you are there to celebrate their differences and help them develop into adults who are comfortable with who they are, and finding those people who celebrate them as well.