Social emotional development in Autism
Michelle Garcia Winner
Learning evolves. The brain’s capacity to acquire new knowledge helps determine how and what we intuitively learn. Some learning happens as a matter of cognitive, social, and emotional development, i.e., from the “inside out, ” while other learning happens “from the outside in.” For those of us who are neurotypical, social learning helps us bond with our caregivers early in life then paves the way for language development, more advanced relations, and an understanding of abstract social concepts that grows through experience and maturity.
Social learning is typically a process that evolves naturally, starting from birth and continuing across the life span. Children move from primarily adult-based interactions to observational discovery of their peers as the prelude to play. Play as a developmental milestone also encourages other relevant skills to emerge, such as cooperation, perspective taking, and emotional regard for others. Not coincidentally, as children develop the ability to cooperate and play in a group they are readying themselves to learn in a classroom, when at five years old they enter school. As children grow and move from second to third grade, internationally the curriculum shifts from rote learning in a group to critical thinking in a classroom. At this point children are expected to not only relate well person to person on the playground, but also determine the motives of a character in a storybook as well as make predictions about how characters are thinking and feeling. Alongside this academic and cognitive shift, a similar social/emotional change occurs. Children’s goal oriented play (tag, Four Square, etc.) evolves into deeper levels of personal connection, where children playfully relate to each other through conversational initiations and maintenance. Subtle but persistent advances in social development serve as the engine for subtle but persistent social emotional development. These advancing concepts are applied not only to our social interactions and group participation but also in the ways we interpret and respond to the curriculum within our coursework.
Given that neurotypical children advance socially and emotionally in an ever expanding snowball of social cognitive achievement, how do we – the adults who steer children’s social, emotional, and academic learning - develop and map out treatment for those who are born to social learning challenges? One answer lies in starting from our roots and understanding how social learning unfolds from the ground up.
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