Socialization Survival Guide for Uncivilized Times

Key takeaways: We reached out to Dr. Faye Carter, regional clinical director of ABA services at STAR of CA in Culver City, as well as clinical psychologist Dr. Carrie King, to talk about some strategies we might use to step outside our family bubbles — whether in person or virtually. They recommend that we expand our social circles however we can, build social goals into Zoom sessions, join the virtual programs or groups our kids never had time for before, share stories often with friends and family, and see what resources are available to us through Regional Center and IHSS.

One of the biggest challenges with distance learning — and there are many — is keeping our kids socially engaged through this period of relative isolation. But as the pandemic progresses, we’re coming to a narrative divide of sorts: those of us who have the ability and immune systems to widen our pods have done so, while those of us who continue to need to self-isolate for our own or our children’s health are increasingly looking for meaningful ways to branch out without putting our families at risk. While there are strategies, tips, and opportunities to support both groups, it’s worth mentioning that as we continue to muddle through this new reality, each of us has to make the decisions that are safe, appropriate, and necessary for our families. In other words, no judgment — just solidarity.

     5 THINGS YOU CAN TRY RIGHT NOW

  • Expand your social circle however you can.
  • Build social goals into Zoom life, such as working on eye contact and online etiquette.
  • Join that virtual after-school or weekend program or group that your kid never had time for before.
  • Find little ways your kid can stay connected: hold weekly calls with a favorite uncle; find a pen pal; take treasure-hunting walks and share what you find with a friend.
  • Check in with IHSS and Regional Center if you haven't already to see what 1:1 services and resources are available to you. 
Two young girls, one with bangs and long black hair, one with short black hair and a gold bracelet, play with a red balloon at a grassy green park.
Two young girls, one with bangs and long black hair, one with short black hair and a gold bracelet, play with a red balloon at a grassy green park.

Back in April, Dr. Matthew Biel, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, joined us for a live chat to talk about the effects of the pandemic on our kids. Several of his insights — okay, more than several — have had lasting resonance. Among them, Dr. Biel suggested that rather than trying to create entirely new strategies to accommodate the pandemic, we should build socialization and engagement into our kids’ day by leaning into the kinds of things they already enjoy. Look to the support systems you have that sustained your kids in the past. What is their favorite part of the school day? Who do they enjoy spending time with? What are the activities they tend toward when left to their own devices? Which of your friends or family members have particular resonance for them? With this goal in mind, we reached out to Dr. Faye Carter, regional clinical director of ABA services at STAR of CA in Culver City, as well as clinical psychologist Dr. Carrie King, to talk about some strategies we might use to step outside our family bubbles — whether in person or virtually.

Let’s start with the hard part: the virus itself

While many families have already opened their family pods to opportunities for socialization — hosting outdoor get-togethers or letting children play outdoors with other kids in the neighborhood — the data is still unclear on how children contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Early reports, such as this one, suggested that children do not seem to play a significant part in spreading the disease; in fact, one study found that only a very small number (less than .2%) contracted COVID from daycare. In some parts of the country, particularly on the East Coast, where the number of cases is now low, schools are preparing to reopen in person on a part-time or hybrid basis — and everywhere, including California, daycares and after-school programs are open to families that need them. Meanwhile, as camps reopened this summer, we learned that children can and do spread the virus: a camp in Georgia that saw the very rapid spread of COVID-19 is one example of this. And just a few days ago, a report published by Massachusetts General Hospital shows that children (defined by this study as between the ages of 0–22) in fact DO play a significant role in disease spread: the study found that nearly half of the children who tested positive for COVID had very limited to no symptoms, and the viral load found in their nasal swabs, taken in the first two days of infection, was higher than that found in severely ill adults. In other words, they’re carrying the virus and nobody knows it.

Five months into this mess, however, we’re starting to understand the real cost of social isolation, so it’s becoming more and more difficult to make decisions based on the numbers when the need to maintain some sense of social life is increasingly real. So here at Undivided, we say it’s high time we get creative, resourceful, and brave about socialization strategies to keep our kids (and ourselves!) healthy — physically and mentally.

Lean into the known: close friends and family

Dr. Faye Carter told us that at this point in the pandemic, she and her colleagues at STAR of CA are recommending that families expand their social circles however they can. “Start with family members and friends, people that you as parents know,” she says. “At this point I don’t know that having a direct peer matters. Just look for a good balance. It could be a good family friend who has a typically developing kid who is nice, forgiving, kind, and able to facilitate interaction. It doesn’t have to be an equal relationship — just someone you know who would be a good fit for your child.” It’s also important to think about who you know well enough that you can ensure some kind of consistency going forward, Dr. Carter says, so that once you agree to get your families together, you can continue to do so. 

Of course, it goes without saying that whoever you choose to “pod” with should maintain a similar level of rigor around social interactions so that neither family puts the other at risk. At this point, who among us hasn’t had to have those awkward conversations? (As one teacher we know put it, it’s not unlike the kinds of conversations we teach teenagers to have with potential partners about safe sex.) 

When you do get your kid together with the family or friend you choose, beyond staying outdoors, Dr. Carter recommends keeping highly preferred items available to ease the social interaction; keeping the initial meeting short and sweet; and providing as much support as your child needs while trying to let the socialization flow as much as you can without intervention.

Lean into the benefits of virtual life 

If you’re not able to see another family in person, think about who you might schedule regular virtual playdates with. Dr. Carter tells us that this is now a big part of what she does with some of her clients. “We set up virtual play dates with students who share similar interests and abilities,” she says. “There are so many interactive games that you can play — board games, Uno, Connect 4, Bingo — they’re all online now, so it’s really fun. We use those games as a conversation piece, and let the kids interact as independently as possible; in other cases, we’re much more involved in guiding or running the interaction.” 

And when it comes to working on those social goals, why not use this time to work on social cues and online etiquette? Some of the goals that STAR of CA has developed as part of their online etiquette curriculum include:

  • not bringing materials to the Zoom class or interaction that will be distracting,
  • looking at the screen while engaging in an activity and making eye contact with the person or people they’re engaging with,
  • minimizing distracting items or noises in the background,
  • learning how to use the mute and “raise hand” functions, and
  • building awareness of how we present to people when interacting with them virtually. 

Dr. Carter says she has also taken advantage of the wealth of material on YouTube to work on social skills using video modeling. She and the child she’s working with watch a video together, discuss what they’ve seen, and complete the activity by engaging in roleplay. If YouTube is something your child enjoys, you might consider trying this yourself. 

One of the silver linings of virtual life is that the safety that comes from being behind a screen can be a boon for those with social anxiety. Dr. Carter says that some of her kids who struggle with eye contact have found that they have more space to work on their social anxieties. “In some cases, our kids who get anxious in social situations have done a little bit better with virtual supports,” she says. “The eye contact isn’t as hard; it’s a little more forgiving — and you don’t have to worry about your body language as much.” You can also use this time to work with your child on maintaining eye contact with the teachers, therapists, and peers they meet with virtually, and think about building this into school-based social goals as well.

Lean into passions and interests

This brings us to another great silver lining of virtual life: revisiting the groups or after-school activities you always wanted your kid to take part in that weren’t feasible before due to distance or time constraints. Now your child can join these activities, social skills classes, or play groups regardless of where they’re located. Dr. Carter tells us that several of her clients who would have been great matches for building social skills groups lived too far apart to make these a reality, and now they meet online.

Leaning into interests is something that Dr. Biel also touched on: “If you’ve got a kid who’s slow to develop social skills, and this new reality is in many ways a relief for them, what are the ways you can challenge them? Is this a time for them to go deep on some topic that they love?” So maybe it's time to dig in to some after-school groups and extracurriculars. Here are a few our research team dug up:

We’ll be looking into more after-school resources as the school year progresses and will share what we find. 

Lean into the little things

Part of maintaining a sense of belonging in the world means experiencing the world through our relationships and interactions with other people — a healthy sense of self depends on that interaction, too, especially for younger children. Clinical psychologist Dr. Carrie King has some practical strategies for how to help our kids stay connected.

Keeping people in mind is something else we’re losing during this pandemic,” she says. “If you’re actively parenting, think about how to connect the things you do every day with other people who are also doing them. When you make a grandparent’s recipe, give them a call and tell them that you made it. Share it. Call your kid’s buddy and say you’re making a pizza: “Why don’t you also make a pizza and we’ll send pictures?”

Dr. King reminds us that younger children get a lot out of circle time at school: it’s a daily opportunity for kids to check in with themselves and each other. “When kids tell a story at circle time,” she says, “it’s a way to process things and get feedback, and you lose that when you’re just at home.” Sharing stories with friends and family is one way to recreate the kinds of positive feedback kids get from circle time. “Call so and so and tell them that story. Remember that there are people out there for you — is there somebody your kid could call every Friday to ask what they’re reading or playing? I think we all have to do that. We all know people who have some extra time on their hands. I asked one uncle to make a slideshow of his trip to England and show my kids and he did. I’ve let the kids watch a show that another uncle watches so they can talk about the show together. It’s important to remember that we have other people out there because we can feel very isolated.”

There are many other ways to stay connected, too. Paint a rock and leave it outside a friend’s house, or write chalk messages on their driveway. “We’ve really leaned into pen pals over quarantine,” Dr. King says of her family. “This could be with family across the country — it doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s say you know that you and your pen pal both like shiny rocks. You see one on a walk and you think of sharing it with your pen pal. You’re keeping someone in mind. Some children with autism don’t naturally consider how other kids might see something, so that’s a really nice practice. And of course, every kid loves to get a letter in the mail.”

Lean into every available resource

For Dr. Carter and her colleagues at STAR of CA, it’s obvious that virtual life is just really hard for some kids, both in terms of socialization and distance learning. “We’re trying to get in there as essential workers as much as we can when it’s warranted,” Dr. Carter tells us. “We’ve looked at the kids we’ve worked with at school and really considered: Can this student work virtually or do they need the 1:1 support? Can we get Regional Center funding to get them enough support? We’re trying really hard to do that for families as well because it’s really challenging.”

Remember that those resources are out there and available to you if you need them.

Remember the good things

In closing, Dr. King reminds us to keep it all in perspective as much as we can, and to try to balance your own expectations as well as the demands of distance learning. In short, we don’t have to make it as hard as we may think it has to be. “There are no rules anymore,” she says. “You can hire a teacher for your kid and do whatever you want this year. This is the year to meet our kids where they are.

* The Help Group’s Kids Like Me after-school enrichment program begins September 21 and will include a Dungeons & Dragons club, therapeutic social skills groups, free parent support groups, Worry Warriors for students with ASD and anxiety, fun & fitness, cartooning, and cooking classes, to name a few, all with a focus on fun and social connectedness. Groups will be based on the age of participants, but are generally open to ages 5 or 6 through young adult. The schedule is not yet online, so program director Nicole Webb invites parents to contact her directly with questions in the meantime at (818) 778-7136 or NWebb@thehelpgroup.org

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