Social Skills Activities for Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Feelings of alienation, social withdrawal, and plummeting self-esteem can result from the simple lack of basic social skills. Adults with special needs deserve as many breaks that they can get. The simple act of introducing them to the concepts of common courtesy, good manners, and how to act as a friend does more than just make them well-rounded—it gives them the opportunity to make friends, develop a healthy social network, and enjoy a more rewarding life.

Help them gain important self-confidence by teaching proper everyday social behavior.

Bad social behavior can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of self-confidence. Introduce your clients to proper social behavior necessary for success in everyday situations, and you’ll give them the tools to meet friends, keep friends, and develop respectful relationships with peers.

  • Practice everyday conversations: It helps to act out situations and potential conversations with them. It’s no secret that adults with developmental disabilities tend to handle a situation much better when they’re prepared for it ahead of time. This simple truth makes practicing conversations a no-brainer!
  • Teach them how to be approachable: What makes someone approachable? A smile, nice posture, clean, well-kept clothes, a good attitude, etc. Teach them why it’s important to be approachable—more likely to make friends, appear more friendly in an interview, it will give them positive feelings, etc. Take turns practicing coming across as “approachable” vs “unapproachable.”
  • Teach what makes a good friend: Once you have a friendship you want to keep it, right? It’s important to teach adults with cognitive disabilities that friendships are relationships you work at, or spend time on. A good friend is caring, truthful, and fun to be around. Role play what you can do with a friend that shows you care about them (bring them soup when they’re sick, remember their birthday, etc.)

Show them examples of what happens when you’re dishonest to your friends, and how it can negatively affect your relationship. By watching videos of the negative consequences of dishonesty, adults with developmental disabilities are able to see how their decisions can affect their friendships poorly—without having to experience the painful situations themselves.

This clip is from our PeopleSmart series. Through a series of dramatizations of typical human interactions, your clients will see the negative impact of being dishonest and learn how good manners and honesty promote respect and acceptance.

Use lessons about appropriate interactions with others to encourage social success.

In addition to learning the specific “rules of the road” for interacting appropriately with others, your clients should also learn that the essence of good manners and good people skills is based on concern and thoughtfulness towards others.

This concept is applied to occasions such as manners at school, in public, during greetings, and when conversing with others. Illustrate classic right and wrong ways to interact with others that are humorous yet informative. You’ll give your clients a basic foundation in acceptable manners that they will use daily.

Teach them about healthy relationships and healthy sexual behavior.

Adults with cognitive disabilities have sexual feelings and needs just like everyone else. In order to educate everyone to be healthy, we need to accept the fact that (most of the time) sex is a natural and healthy thing. Adults with special needs, just as much, if not more, than other individuals need accurate and helpful information about sexuality. In discussing subjects surrounding sex and relationships, parents and teachers should start by explaining that everyone has sexual thoughts and feelings.

Although this topic has the potential to cause some awkwardness or embarrassment, educating adults with disabilities about their sexual health and sexual relationships is crucial to helping them lead fulfilling lives. We all want the love and joy of a romantic relationship, and adults with developmental disabilities are not exempt from those same desires. Unfortunately, their disabilities make them more vulnerable to predators and exploitation—this is why it’s absolutely crucial to educate them on which relationship behaviors are appropriate, and which should be reported to a trusted adult.

  • Start with talking about dating skills: Just like learning the rules of friendship, the rules of healthy relationships require both parties to be caring, kind, loving, and honest. If you want someone to like you, you’re going to show them your best self. Talk with clients about what their “best self” is (they want to look nice for their partner, they want to do little things to show they care, they want to do things together they both enjoy, etc.)
  • Plan a date: What does dating look like in their individual situation? Group homes and resource centers can be limited in the types of activities they can engage in, so emphasize that dating doesn’t have one specific definition. Just sitting down to share a meal, watch a movie, or talk about your favorite things with your significant other can be meaningful and fun.
  • Give them a concrete definition of a consensual relationship: Romantic relationships are ONLY appropriate if each person wants to be dating the other. It’s important to make explicit distinctions about what types of touch are appropriate vs. inappropriate (for example, the way you touch your significant other is NOT the way you would touch a counselor or aide). Touch is only appropriate if both people want to touch, and emphasize that if any type of touch ever feels inappropriate or wrong, they should tell a trusted adult.

Not sure how to begin “The Talk”? This blog includes 6 Tips for Talking About Sex to Teens with Special Needs, and it can certainly be applied to adults with developmental disabilities as well.

Last photo via The Arc

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Stanfield Special Education Curriculum

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