Lisa Timms has an MS in Special Education from the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania (PA), USA. She has worked alongside autistic individuals for many years in a variety of roles, and is now Learning Disabilities Coordinator at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. In the past, Lisa has held social skills classes and parent training sessions, and currently teaches special education courses for the education department at King’s College. She resides in Pittston, PA.

Here, Lisa answers some questions about her new book, 60 Social Situations and Discussion Starters to Help Teens on the Autism Spectrum Deal with Friendships, Feelings, Conflict and More: Seeing the Big Picture.

Tell us about you – what is your background and how did you come to work with young people on the autism spectrum?

I began working with young people on the autism spectrum when I was doing Therapeutic Staff Support working one on one with children in the classroom while I was working on my Masters Degree in Special Education. Upon receiving my Masters I had the opportunity to teach students (which included students on the spectrum) in grades K-12 in various settings. The more I worked with these students I realized just how amazing they really are. They view the world so much differently from other students and each one of them are incredibly knowledgeable in their point of interest(s). I also watched these students struggle socially with their peers.

How did the book come about? Where did the inspiration for the social situations in the book come from?

The book actually began as a curriculum for an online cyber school. I was working as a special education teacher for them. We had a lot of students coming in who were on the spectrum. I was concerned since they were now being taught at home and lost social interaction with their peers. The school I worked for did offer opportunities for the students to come together at different events and outings but it was not the same as the daily interaction these students had in a brick and mortar school. I started to develop a social skills program in my own time for these students and was given the opportunity to pilot it for grades 4-6. We would meet weekly in an online classroom as a small group. I would go through the situations with them and encourage reciprocal conversation amongst the students. I began to get positive feedback about the class from both the parents and students. The class was expanded to other grade levels every year from its inception.

As I was developing the program I realized there were limited resources for social situations for older students so I began writing my own. The inspiration for the situations came from real life experiences I have encountered with myself, my family or my friends. A lot of the inspiration came from my son Cody. Just watching what he was experiencing as a typical teen gave me a lot of material to work with.

The discussion starters encourage parents and teens on the autism spectrum to work together. Why was it important to structure the book this way?

I think parents are a key component to teens understanding the social puzzle. No one knows a child better than their parent and every family has its own set of values. If parents work together with their teens it will not only bring guidance to the teen but also insight to the parent on how their teen thinks. Parents can guide their teen to responses that are acceptable within their own family values.

Why might it be difficult for parents and teachers to teach teens on the autism spectrum about social interactions? What are some common challenges, and how will your book help?

Teens on the spectrum are already struggling with the social code. Teens not on the spectrum have enough of a hard time navigating through high school. When you add puberty and typical teen issues on top of the struggle teens on the spectrum face, it becomes increasingly difficult for the teen to understand whats going on with their peers. The book presents situations a teen might encounter. Parents, teachers and other professionals can work on the situations with the teen in a safe, comfortable setting. Since they are familiar with the teen they can possibly relate the situations to things the teen has actually experienced in their life which will help generalize the skill.

What are some important skills parents must possess in order to be effective in communicating with their teen on the autism spectrum about social interactions?

Parents need to keep an open mind and not be judgmental in any way. If your teen gives a seemingly inappropriate response to a question, I strongly encourage the parent to not tell the teen they are wrong. Instead, ask them why they answered the question the way they did. A large percentage of the time the teen will have a valid reason for their response. After learning that reason you can explain to your teen why that may not be a socially acceptable response and guide them to an appropriate response.

Referring to your chapter on cyber safety, why might it be difficult for teens on the autism spectrum to navigate social encounters online or through other digital media?

Its difficult for anyone to navigate social encounters online or through other digital media. Its difficult for individuals who aren’t on the spectrum to interpret an email or an instant message. Even with emoticons the true message can be misunderstood. Sarcasm and idioms in an email or instant message are incredibly hard to grasp even if you know the person sending it very well. Some teens post status updates of exactly what is on their mind. For a teen on the spectrum, they would take most everything literally. If you look over some teens status posts you will quickly see how this could cause stress for a teen on the spectrum. Working through different situations with your teen will not only help them interpret the message better but it will also open up a line of communication between you and your teen. Hopefully this will make them comfortable enough to come to you if they have a question about an email, instant message, or social posting.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope the situations help the readers as much as they helped my students. I was so impressed with all of my students. They became comfortable with each other and me during the program so they were not afraid to truly speak what they thought. I gave them a safe place to talk about different things where they would not be criticized, judged, or reprimanded. We would work together on any questions they had and towards socially appropriate responses. It was incredible to see how they progressed through the program. They began to understand not only themselves a little better but also their peers.

Also, I would like anyone who works with teens on the spectrum to get a clearer view into the mind of the teen. If you work with them and ask them questions you will begin to understand why they view things the way they do. Its like opening a door into your teens mind. Teens on the spectrum are like a puzzle just waiting for someone to put in the missing pieces. I hope this book will help anyone working with the teen put those pieces into place.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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