Sharpening Social Skills Using Norman Rockwell Paintings, Part 2

In my previous post, I explained how and why you can use Norman Rockwell paintings as resources to teach social skills and inference to kids on the spectrum, as well as neurotypical (NT) kids. I also provided a walk-through of a lesson based on one of Rockwell’s early paintings.

In this post, I’ll go into more detail on the kinds of questions to ask your child, what to anticipate during the lesson, and what to do about a resistant child or one who seems to be in over his head.

As I mentioned previously, at the time we did this study, my son had no diagnosis and I had no education myself on social skills and inference in regards to ASD. Four years later, I’m better educated on this topic and I can look back and see why what I learned to do intuitively at the time was actually working well and helping my son.

If you’re reading this, you may already have a diagnosis or you may not. You may have done a lot of reading on ASD or you may not. You may be used to teaching your own child or you may not. So I’m not going to assume any previous knowledge; instead, I’ll provide any details I think would be helpful, based on my own limited experience with high-functioning ASD (or Asperger’s) and social skills.

What are the goals?

In this art study, what goals are you wanting to work toward? Basically, you’re wanting to strengthen inference skills, which means reaching a conclusion or deduction based on evidence and reasoning. In some areas of their lives, this is easy for kids on the spectrum (you probably already know which areas your child would have no trouble with). But when it comes to human relationships, social or personal situations, inferred humor, and related topics, your child may struggle more than most. These paintings give your child a chance to practice those skills in a safe, non-threatening, and interesting way. (This information is for your benefit; I personally wouldn’t share these goals or the words “social skills” or “inference” with the student. This is a fun activity and much learning will take place without turning it into a dreaded school subject or pointing out a child’s deficits in this area.)

Before you begin … the cardinal rule of success with this resource is that you are interested in and excited about what you’re learning, in a genuine and curiosity-focused way. You are on a learning journey right along with your student. When you are invested and clearly interested, the child will usually be as well. (This is actually true of all teaching!)

The basic lesson plan

Here’s a quick recap of the basic steps you and your student will take for each picture. Be sure to see the previous post for details on each.

1. Read the title. See previous post for the reason why.

2. Identify each of the people in the painting. Be as specific as possible.

3. Identify any objects that your child doesn’t recognize or understand. As a part of this step, you can play the game of “What’s different and the same as now?”

4. Determine (infer): What are the relationships of the people in the painting to each other?

5. Determine (infer): What is the story? What’s happening, what has already happened, and what will happen? And why is this picture funny, poignant, sad, stirring, comforting, or whatever other emotion Rockwell is trying to convey?

Number 5 on this list is your ultimate goal and will likely be the most challenging part for your student. Figuring out the story requires recognizing the situational context, facial expressions, and body language, and connecting all of that to previous knowledge and understanding of human behavior. If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that that’s a tough nut to crack for a child with ASD. What NT kids (depending on age and maturity) will grasp quickly and easily may need a great deal of assistance on your part with a child on the spectrum.

Wording your questions in a conversational way

As you and your student work through the above steps, you’ll find that certain types of questions will produce a more positive response than others. Try to be as specific as possible with your questions or comments (ambiguity is frustrating for a child with ASD). Remember to show your own interested curiosity rather than having a “now it’s time to answer these questions” attitude. For example:

  • “Now, who do you think this girl might be?” [if no answer, give clues]
  • “Hmm, I wonder how these two people are related?” [if no answer, then:] “Do you think they’re probably brother and sister or husband and wife?”
  • “Does that boy look older or younger than you?”
  • “Does that girl look kind of sad? I agree! How can you tell?”
  • “I see two curious people and two people who are just doing their own thing—do you see it? Hmm, now which is which?”
  • “Are these people friends? I wonder if they even know each other? What do you think? Here’s why I thought that.”
  • “Wow, look at this weird thing—do you know what that is? It’s called a ________ and people used it for ________ a long time ago. What else in this picture is something different from today?” [then] “What’s the same as today?”
  • “I wonder why he has that expression on his face? Could it have something to do with [an object, a person]?”
  • “Why does the dad look so sad but the boy looks happy? That’s kind of weird. Let’s see if we can figure that out.”
  • “Hey, look what both of the boys are holding! What do you think they might do later on? Do you think they might become friends?”  [relate to shared interests among student’s friends]
  • “I wonder what just happened. Do you think it had something to do with [a detail you’ve already identified]? And what do you think may happen after this?”
  • “This picture makes me feel kind of sad [happy, amused, confused]. Do you think so, too? Art sometimes affects people in different ways. I wonder what the artist was trying to get at. Let’s see if we can figure it out.”

Keep it conversational and fun. Remember that you may have to explain some things that seem quite obvious to you—in fact, plan on it. The process, the conversation, and your relationship with your child are much more important that arriving at “the right answer.”

Kids on the spectrum often have trouble understanding other people’s point of view or things outside their own specific experiences. So Rockwell’s paintings, while expressing recognizable human experiences and characteristics to NT students, will be more difficult to decode for a child with ASD. Subjects involving boyfriends/girlfriends, parenting, workers of various kinds, the military, boy-specific or girl-specific topics, etc., may be out of your child’s sphere of interest or experience and therefore he’ll need more help understanding them. It’s all worthwhile and exposes him to the wide range of human experience in an enjoyable way.

Possible pitfalls and what to do

Here are some general tips and instructions for possible pitfalls you might experience when teaching any child, but are particularly applicable to kids on the spectrum: apparent boredom, frustration, difficulties with “the right answer,” and recognizing when to take a break.

1. If the child appears to be bored, it may be that he simply doesn’t have the attention span for more than one painting at a time, or for a complex painting, or one that’s part of a multi-painting series. If you’re doing all you can to exhibit enthusiasm (in other words, you are not bored), then call it a day and try again another time. You might try introducing each painting as you reach for the book or search online, musing aloud, “I’m kind of excited to see the painting for today—there’s a little something odd [funny, unusual, weird, confusing] about it and I’m interested to see what you think.” Tapping into the child’s curiosity and your interest in their opinion (not their right or wrong answer; see #3 below) is sometimes all it takes.

2. If you sense frustration, this is often caused by not being able to come up with “the right answer.” (Kids on the spectrum often learn early in life that people do and say many things that everyone else seems to understand, but they don’t. This can lead to feelings of frustration and disconnection with others.) First try a few leading questions to build confidence. Casual, conversational questions like, “It seems like she’s really happy about something—does she look that way to you?” Take turns mentioning aspects of her facial expression and body language that show she’s happy. You could also comment, “Wow, this is a really busy picture! Look at all this stuff going on. I see [a detail]. What little detail do you see?” Take turns mentioning details, narrowing it down to what’s particularly relevant. Also, give choices (“Does it look like it might be this [feeling, situation, event, reaction], or this [feeling, situation, event, reaction]?”

3. If there is any ambiguity as to “the right answer,” be sure to acknowledge this and leave room for a difference of opinion. Praise your child if he comes up with another interpretation that could work. If he mentions an idea that you are pretty sure is wrong, ask him why he thinks that (have him show you the evidence and explain why—give him time to verbalize it). Appreciate his original thinking and mention that art is often subjective, then explain your own reasoning as to why you believe the painting is what it is. See if he eventually agrees, or at least can see your point of view. Hearing and appreciating another person’s point of view is a valuable skill, and discussing art is a fun way to develop this skill with a neutral subject matter. Of course, you’re trying to arrive at an understanding of what’s actually happening in the illustration (that’s the social skills part!). But there may be times you have to agree to disagree, and that’s okay.

4. When to take a break and try again (months, years) later: If your child is frequently bored or frustrated, is consistently coming up with “wrong answers” (i.e., he’s completely clueless as to what it going on), and has no interest in listening to your point of view, explanations, or questions, don’t push it. It’s likely he’s simply not ready and would benefit from waiting a few months or even a year or two. Socio-emotional development happens at different times for different kids, and for kids on the spectrum, that difference and wide range of ages is magnified many times over.

I hope these two posts have been helpful in imagining ways you can use Norman Rockwell’s art to teach social skills. All of these methods can be used with other art, as well, but Rockwell’s paintings are particularly valuable because they rely on universal human relationships and situations in order to fully appreciate them. After we had studied many of these paintings together, I felt I knew and understood my son better than I did before. I wish the same for you and your child as you have fun and learn together. If you have questions or comments,  I’d love to hear them below.

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