Making friends and fitting in—it’s an important part of a child’s life. It can be challenging at times, too. But if connecting with others is a constant struggle for your child, it could be a sign of learning and attention issues.
There are a few issues that make it hard to have conversations and socialize. There’s one, however, that’s mainly known for impacting key social skills. That condition is called nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD). Learn more about what might be behind your child’s trouble with social skills, and how you can help.
What You Might Be Seeing
Trouble with social skills may not be that obvious in early childhood, depending on the cause. Some kids with NVLD, for instance, don’t show signs until grade school or middle school. That’s when socializing becomes more complex. You might start noticing that your child doesn’t seem to get it when others look or sound annoyed. Or maybe he responds inappropriately in conversations.
What Can Cause Trouble With Social Skills
NVLD is a learning issue that primarily involves social skills. Other conditions can also make it hard for kids to interact, but for different reasons. Here are some of the causes of trouble with social skills.
Nonverbal learning disabilities: This brain-based condition makes it hard for kids to understand communication that isn’t spoken. Kids with NVLD tend to miss social cues. Those are the messages people send through body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. For instance, kids with NVLD might not understand that a classmate who is crossing her arms and looking away doesn’t want to talk.
Many kids with NVLD don’t get abstract concepts. They may have trouble reading between the lines. If someone says, “I’m so mad I could spit,” they may take it literally. NVLD often affects self-control skills like taking turns, letting others speak and keeping emotions in check. It can also cause problems with coordination and balance, along with math skills. Here are some of the main symptoms of NVLD that involve social skills:
- Talks too much
- Shares information in inappropriate ways
- Relies on adults to get information
- Doesn’t understand facial expressions
- Is overly literal and doesn’t get riddles and sarcasm
- Withdraws from conversations with peers
- Prefers talking to adults rather than other kids
The signs of NVLD can vary at different ages. What you see in a grade-schooler might not be the same in a middle-schooler or high-schooler.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): The symptoms of ADHD can make it hard for kids to socialize. Kids with ADHD tend to have trouble with focus and impulse control. They may also be overactive. Here are some of the behaviors of ADHD that affect social skills:
- Has trouble taking turns
- Interrupts or blurts out answers
- Wants things immediately
- Doesn’t give others the chance to speak
- Is a poor listener and loses the point of what’s being said
- Gives up easily on tasks, even in group activities
- Constantly moves around and fidgets
The signs of ADHD can vary at different ages. Like with NVLD, what you see in a grade-schooler might not be the same in a middle-schooler or high-schooler.
Social communication disorder (SCD): Kids with SCD have issues with spoken language. Unlike those with NVLD or ADHD, they often don’t want to talk to people. Here are some symptoms of SCD that make it hard to connect with others:
- Has little interest in social interactions
- Goes off-topic or monopolizes conversations
- Doesn’t adapt language to different situations or people
- Doesn’t give background information when speaking to an unfamiliar person
- Doesn’t know how to properly greet people, request information or gain attention
- Is overly literal and doesn’t understand riddles and sarcasm
- Has trouble understanding nonverbal communication
- Has difficulty understanding things that aren't spelled out
The signs of SCD can vary at different ages.
These three conditions are separate, but a child can have more than one. Knowing what’s behind your child’s trouble with social skills can help you find the best help for his specific issues.
How to Get Answers
If your child is having trouble with social skills, finding out why is key to getting the best support. Observing and taking notes on your child’s behavior is a good place to start. That information will be helpful to the professionals who evaluate him. Getting to the bottom of your child’s issues may be a multi-step process. Here’s how to start.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. You know the social challenges you’re seeing at home. But the teacher can shed new light by sharing what’s happening in the classroom. Talking about your concerns and observations can lead to informal supports at school. For instance, the teacher might pair your child with kids who share similar interests or make sure to give him very clear instructions.
- Look into an educational evaluation. If you think your child’s social skills issues are caused by a learning or attention issue, you or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate him. If the school agrees, you won’t have to pay for it. Depending on the results, your child may be able to get services and supports to meet his needs. The school would commit to providing these services in writing, through a 504 plan or an IEP. But the choice to pursue an evaluation is totally yours.
- Talk to your child’s doctor. You can also start by talking to your child’s doctor. Together you can come up with a plan for finding out what’s causing your child’s trouble with social skills. The doctor may be able to rule out any medical problems. You may also get a referral to a speech therapist or learning specialist for testing.
- Talk to a specialist. Some pediatricians can check for ADHD. But a psychologist trained in learning and attention issues can check for both NVLD and ADHD. A speech therapist can identify SCD in your child. There are different types of tests and assessments for NVLD, ADHD and SCD. You will need to pay for any evaluations made by a private specialist.
- Talk to a learning specialist. This professional can evaluate your child for learning and attention issues using the same tests the school would use. But you will need to pay because it’s a private evaluation.
What You Can Do Now
No matter what’s behind your child’s trouble with social skills there are ways to help her get support, build social skills and gain confidence. Just knowing you’re there for her can make a big difference. Here are some things than can make things easier for your child and for you:
- Learn as much as you can. The more you know about your child’s specific social challenges the better able you’ll be to help.
- Observe and take notes. Noticing when and where your child has social difficulty can be a big help. Look for behavior patterns, so you can try different strategies to change them. Your notes will also be helpful when you’re talking to your child’s doctor, teacher or specialist.
- Do some role-playing. Act out social situations you know your child will be in. That might include playdates, parties and family gatherings. Practice things like taking turns, starting conversations and greeting people.
- Help your child meet other kids. Finding kids who share your child’s interests can make it easier for her to connect. Look for classes or clubs that focus on things she enjoys.
- Look into social skill building classes. Your school may offer them for free. Some private counselors with training in learning issues may also run programs for kids who struggle socially.
- Try different strategies. You may find useful tips and suggestions in Parenting Coach. Get advice on how to help your child with making friends and improving social skills.
- Connect with other parents. Although it may feel like you’re the only family dealing with social skills issues, you’re not. Talk to parents in similar situations and share insights and strategies.
Kids with issues that impact social skills don’t usually outgrow them. But with your help your child can learn strategies to have better social interactions. Every success she has can build her self-esteem and motivate her to keep working at it.