How to use classic illustrations to teach social skills to kids on the spectrum.
For many years in our homeschool, we did “artist/composer study” every Friday, studying one person each month. For most of those years, we simply focused on the artist’s life and their most important works. But when I was teaching my youngest, I realized an amazing thing during our study of Norman Rockwell: his paintings are incredible teaching tools for developing social skills and inference for kids who struggle in this area. And as a bonus, they’re really fun to talk about.
Both this post and the next are for the benefit of those who are homeschooling a child on the spectrum, as well as those who teach or provide social skills therapy for kids with ASD, or want to use these techniques with neurotypical (NT) kids just for the fun of it.
A little background
My “a-ha!” moment with Norman Rockwell came after already covering his works two or three times with older siblings as we rotated through our list of artists. I believe that studying Rockwell’s paintings with any child is beneficial and rewarding. His work is instantly recognizable, full of rich detail, and usually tells a story—all without words. My kids loved throwing out ideas as to what they thought each painting was about, who the people were, what they were doing, what had come before, and what would happen next. This was a fun and fairly easy activity for my first three children.
When my youngest (9 or 10 at the time) and I began to study Rockwell, I assumed we would follow this same pattern with basically the same results. But I was completely unprepared for the difficulty, and the opportunity, this type of study would pose for my son (we didn’t yet have an ASD diagnosis—an evaluation was still two years away).
This study of Norman Rockwell is 100% discussion based, so all you need is access to his paintings. We’re fortunate to own a large coffee table book of Rockwell’s paintings, with almost all of his most famous works included. I can’t say enough how helpful this was. It’s cozy and fun to sit on the couch with that huge book on your lap and study the pictures together, flipping back and forth and progressing at your own pace. I highly recommend getting a physical book for this study (there are many available used for a good price, or your library may have some), but if that’s not possible, you can easily find his paintings online here, here, or here.
What I expected, and what happened instead
For our first day with Rockwell, we simply sat down and opened our book to a large, full-color painting that clearly had a “story.” I’m not sure which one we looked at first, but it might have been this one (for art enthusiasts, this is Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover):
To my surprise, it became clear very quickly that my son wasn’t going to be able to talk readily and spontaneously about the paintings the way his siblings had. He was much less likely to laugh at the painting, ask pertinent questions, or draw quick and accurate conclusions. He was having a great deal of difficulty telling the story, or even identifying what the story was.
It took me a few days to figure out how I needed to adapt my teaching (we had no diagnosis so therefore I had no education myself on social skills, inference, and ASD). I can honestly say that this Norman Rockwell study planted a seed in my mind about the unique way that my son saw and interacted with the world. This time around, our artist study would have different goals and outcomes, and I quickly saw that it had the potential to be a game-changer for my son (and for me) in so many ways.
A brief walk-through of a lesson
In my next post, I give many more details of the kinds of questions to ask, what to look for, how to start and facilitate the discussion, and what to do with a resistant child or a child who seems to be in over his head. For now, I’ll briefly mention some ways we would tackle the painting above.
First, read the title—never skip this step because it states what may be obvious to you but may not be at all obvious to your student. Then, with your student, identify each of the people in very simple terms (here we have all boys, all about the same age, maybe around 10 years old—be as specific as you can).
Next—and this is important because you’re dealing with paintings that are 60 to 100+ years old—identify any objects that your child doesn’t understand. In this painting, that’s likely going to be the baby bottle in the jacket pocket, the string that connects the hat to the lapel, and the baby carriage itself. Many Rockwell paintings also offer a great opportunity to play “What’s different and the same as now?”, where you identify things that are different from today (the carriage vs. a stroller, all details of the boy’s formal clothing, and even the baby’s shoes) as well as what is basically the same (the other boys’ baseball uniforms and equipment, everyone’s haircuts). You’ll find that many of these paintings offer a chance to teach history as well as social skills and art appreciation.
After those concrete details are established, move on to the relationships of the people in the painting. This is sometimes much more difficult for a student on the spectrum. In this painting, the answers you want to move toward are, “The boy is the older brother of the baby, and the other two boys are his friends whom he usually plays ball with.” Sometimes the answers are more ambiguous or open-ended, but Rockwell’s paintings rely on a universal understanding of human relationships and situations, so you can always make a pretty good guess. In my next post, I’ll give examples of questions you can ask to lead your student along this social skills and critical thinking path.
Now for the most challenging part: what is the story? What’s happening, what has already happened, and what will happen? This can be tricky for kids on the spectrum because it relies on the context of the situation, facial expressions, body language, and previous knowledge and understanding of human behavior. Depending on their age and maturity, NT kids will often grasp these kinds of nuances pretty quickly and it becomes a fun puzzle to them to figure out what story the artist is telling. In contrast, kids on the spectrum may have a great deal of difficulty and frustration with this step, may miss important clues, and will need more leading on your part to help them arrive at what the story is about and—very important—why it’s funny, poignant, sad, stirring, comforting, or whatever other emotional response Rockwell seems to be going for.
In this painting, the story might be described as, “The dressed-up boy has to take his baby sister for a walk. He passes his buddies who are on their way to go play baseball. They tease him for having to walk the baby instead of getting to play ball (something “fun”). He stares straight ahead, trying to ignore their taunts.” What’s the emotion Rockwell is trying to convey? I’ll put my money on humor, but it’s possible that your student might be bothered by the teasing or the boy who looks unhappy, and he may or may not want to discuss that in more detail with you.
My next post has more details on how to help kids with ASD get the most out of Rockwell’s paintings and develop their social skills in the process. In the meantime, here are a few more paintings below to get you thinking about how you could use these paintings with any child, whether on the spectrum or not. Take a look at each and I think you’ll see the potential for sharpening social skills using the rich resource of paintings this prolific artist left for our enjoyment and education.