Applauding Premier Wynne’s initiative to teach children emotional intelligence

Posted on in Education Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
January 29, 2015.   Tasha Kheiriddin

“Starting right in the primary and junior grades, kids will be learning listening skills and helping each other to pay attention to facial expressions and what they mean and whether somebody is positive or negative or happy or sad … Start to learn those signals from the time they enter school so, I think, that very early you build the building blocks for that kind of interpersonal ability and intelligence.”

When I read those remarks from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in reference to the province’s new sexual consent curriculum, I nearly fell off my chair. Not because the concepts would be used in sex education, but because they are oh-so-familiar to parents of the one in 68 children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Autistic children lack an innate ability to “read” people’s intentions from their facial expressions. They cannot automatically decode frowns, smiles and furrowed brows, making interpersonal interactions confusing and frustrating. British author Clare Sainsbury, who has the ASD known as Asperger’s Syndrome, describes feeling like “a martian in the playground.” As a result, autistic children often withdraw from social situations and are labelled loners, even though they may crave companionship.

But emotional intelligence can be learned. Researchers, including Tony Attwood and Michelle Garcia Winner, as well as parents, like Kimberly Gallo, have developed specific programs to teach social skills, such as reading facial expressions. If reinforced early, repeatedly and consistently, these skills can become second nature — and transform a child’s life.

When our daughter was three and a half, her preschool teacher confirmed what we suspected: Zara was expressing traits consistent with Asperger’s, including an aversion to other children. Knowing about “face-blindness,” I decided to conduct a test. We sat down in front of the computer, and looked at pictures of people in different emotional states, such as a man frowning. “How is that person feeling?” I asked. No response. “Is he happy or sad?” “Um, happy?” Picture after picture, she got it wrong. It was like a dagger to the heart, realizing that to her, faces were like masks: meaningless, even menacing.

So even before her formal diagnosis, we got to work. For months, we looked at images of faces, and the nuances of different expressions: a raised eyebrow, a downturned mouth. We watched Gallo’s DVD and completed workbooks; we bought puppets and acted out scenarios. The concepts were reinforced through Applied Behaviour Analysis, social skills groups using Garcia Winner’s concepts, and by the wonderful teachers in Zara’s senior kindergarten class. And the results have been amazing.

We now work on flexibility and empathy, as well as decoding physical clues
Two years later, Zara is not just a social being, but a butterfly. She runs into the schoolyard, she plays with other kids, she hugs her friends before she goes home. When I ask her “What was the highlight of the day?” she invariably answers, “I got to sit beside so-and-so at second snack.” She plans playdates and gets invited to birthday parties. I joke that she has more of a social life than I do.

To be sure, our little girl still has challenges, including difficulty playing by other children’s rules, and putting herself in other people’s shoes. So we now work on flexibility and empathy, as well as decoding physical clues. One breakthrough is understanding sarcasm, which I explained depends on the tone of voice, not the actual words that are said. Zara picked this up very quickly; unfortunately, this means that when I now mutter “That’s nice” at her 100th request for attention, she responds with “Uh, Mom, are you being sarcastic?” It secretly thrills me every time.

This is why I applaud Premier Wynne’s initiative to teach children emotional intelligence. It does work, and the benefits go far beyond sex education. In a world where young people spend more facetime with their phones than their family, even neurotypical children are not developing their full ability to understand others and their feelings. This is a problem for schools, where bullying has become epidemic. Developing empathy is not a frill, but a front-line defence against anti-social behaviour.

And as a parent of an ASD child, it is rewarding to see that in the area of emotional intelligence, it is the autistic community that can contribute to the neurotypical world. The work done with our children can help all kids treat each other with respect, throughout their lives — whether in the classroom, the boardroom, or the bedroom.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2015 at 9:47 am and is filed under Education Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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