Sunday, January 17, 2010

Social Skills Consulting

Once again I have been approached by a significant corporation to provide social skills education for their employees. As usual they want to have a training specifically on Asperger's Syndrome (AS). They also want to create AS support groups within the organization. While I certainly appreciate being approached for this kind of business there several problems with what they are asking for.

Technology companies often have a large number of eccentric employees, some with AS and some without, and a good number of employees from differing cultural backgrounds. Just about everyone can benefit from social skills training sessions but many would be insulted by the mere suggestion that this is the case.

It is by far an easier road to travel when a company simply holds a "parallel" social skills training session. As an example, a company can set up a team building workshop for a given department. In addition to other team building exercises and lectures, I would be included to provide some social basics. Now instead of having a training session set up specifically for social learning the session now simply includes it. I usually insert a good amount of humor into my powerpoint presentations and try to have a good time with these social skills sessions. This makes the process fun and avoids insulting anyone.

Instead of feeling singled out or insulted, employees who have Asperger's, or similar challenges, will often approach me after the training session and inquire after my background with AS.

In addition to the training sessions, I work to provide support groups, but not built around AS. Instead of forming a group based upon "what is wrong with me" I prefer to form them around nerdy interests like Science-fiction, role playing games, and video games. These interests attract those with social deficits into an environment where they can receive "support" while avoiding the negatives. This program is also a major confidence building exercise.

Finally, I usually request hours for observations and one to one time. In this way I can meet with those employees who feel left out or put down within the organization and those who feel they need someone to listen to their complaints. Simply by doing this I help them relieve some of their stress. In addition they feel remarkably empowered when I share their insights, mostly anonymously except where unnecessary, with the upper management. This approach helps to provide feedback at all levels.

My methodology is simple: perspective taking. I understand the perspective of those eccentric and socially challenged individuals and help to communicate their perspective to those who do not. I also help those with social challenges who naturally have difficulty taking the perspectives of others (although they have an excuse) and help them to understand the perspectives of others around them. This provides a mutual benefit.

As an example, an employee at a given company had several ideas for how to improve operations. There are socially appropriate ways to do this. Frequently flooding your supervisor's email inbox with many long emails is not one of them. I helped him understand that there was an appropriate process and described the slow and subtle way of getting your point across. I then created a scenario wherein he was the supervisor and I was the subordinate who "bugged" him with issues through improper channels. He began to understand and sent an apology to his supervisor.

I then sat down with the supervisor and explained that in such situations the acknowledgment of the employee's idea initially is important. Then try to explain that while you are considering an idea he will need to wait until she (the supervisor) has heard back from her superiors. Whether or not the ideas were being communicated to a superior is irrelevant, it resolved the question for the time being.

These are just a few examples of ways I have been able to help companies. Unfortunately, they often approach me initially, as has happened once again, simply looking for Asperger's support and training sessions.

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