My response to some of the criticism that has recently happened on Twitter
This month I am pausing my usual blogs on understanding social skills to talk about some recent activity on Twitter. I am doing this with a pretty heavy heart to be honest. And it has taken me a few weeks to feel strong enough to do it. But here I am. I have been working in this field for 35 years and I don’t think I should remain silent.
Of course, those of you who read the various threads about Talkabout and me on Twitter, will know exactly what I am referring to, and those of you who didn’t… well, I am hoping that my summary will be enough. But before I go into all of that, I feel like I want to start with some context to who I am and what I do.
An introduction to who I am and what I do
My name is Alex Kelly and I am the author of a number of books, including the Talkabout books which are all aimed at helping people to teach or develop social skills, self-esteem and friendship skills.
I have always been fascinated by the way that human beings communicate, and it was one of the reasons why I went into Speech Therapy. I then discovered a love of working with people with learning disabilities and it was while I was working with young adults that I became specifically interested in the difficulties they were having in interacting with others, in making friends and being accepted within the college environment they were in. And this was the context in which Talkabout was first developed all those years ago. I spent 4 years working out how I could help these young adults to learn these skills, and what approach worked best, and the result of this work became the first edition of Talkabout. I then moved jobs and went to work with adults with mental health difficulties and learning disabilities, and as part of my work with offenders, I became interested in the link between social skills and self-esteem, and friendship skills. When I left the NHS to set up my own practice, I found myself working more in schools, so I then further developed the Talkabout approach for use in different schools – both primary and secondary, special and mainstream.
My passion for my work stems from the fact that I believe that most of us want the same thing for our children when they leave school: we want them to feel happy with who they are; we want them to have a few friends to spend time with and to know how to make friends if they want to; and we want them to have meaningful activities in their life, a reason to get up in the morning, to succeed at something or to get a job. These 3 things will have an impact on that child’s happiness and quality of life and so I believe that if a child is struggling with their self-esteem, their social skills, or their friendship skills, we should help them to develop those skills. And Talkabout is one approach. One programme that can be used to help.
A brief summary of the points made on Twitter
It all started with a tweet that had an excerpt from one of the assessment pages from one of the Talkabout books (Talkabout for Children: developing social skills). There was initial criticism of the rating scale (never good to very good), some of the descriptions of the skills being rated, and the fact that there were ‘smiley’ faces used in the boxes.
I actually agree with some of the original post! If any of you have heard me talk in the past 10 years, you will know I talk about the limitations of a clinician (or teacher) using this scale and why the new Talkabout assessment (due out next year) and all the target ratings that we recommend you use, have a different 6-point scale from ‘skill not present’ to ‘skill emerging with support’ to ‘skill present in some situations’ etc. You will also know that the assessment is just a guide for the teacher / clinician to know where to start and is not intended to stand alone.
The trouble is, that the original post was presented out of context and from this people started making a number of assumptions that I would like to summarise here and then respond to.
1. That Talkabout was developed for use with autistic people.
2. That Talkabout is not evidence based.
3. When the absence of a particular skill is identified that the child will be taught that skill regardless of the impact that it will have on the child.
4. That the assessment is a tick box exercise and results are shared with the child.
5. That social communication is a one-way street – learning to communicate in a ‘neurotypical way’.
6. That Talkabout does not allow for differences in culture.
7. That Talkabout can harm children.
1. Is Talkabout a programme developed to teach social skills to autistic children and adults?
No. It was developed for people with learning disabilities. However, some of the people that use Talkabout are neurodiverse. But if you have ever heard me talk, you will know that I talk about the pre-requisites to working with someone and ensuring that the intervention is appropriate for the person you are working with. One of these pre-requisites is motivation to learn these skills. If the person does not want to learn them (for whatever reason – and maybe because they are autistic and they don’t want to change their way of communicating to fit into a neurotypical way of interacting), then I always say, don’t do it. However, in my experience, for every person that does not want to develop their social / friendship skills, there are many, many more who want to know the rules so that they can choose to fit in when they need to. I probably receive one email a month from someone asking for support as they are struggling with their social skills and in making friends – they are almost always autistic (diagnosed or undiagnosed) and they are often lonely, depressed, and struggling.
But there is always a choice. And the world is not a kind place for some people. Of course, I would like to see more acceptance and inclusivity for everyone, but alongside this, there is also a need to help some people to understand what most people accept as ‘socially competent’ so that they can exist more happily in the world they find themselves in.
So, do I consider myself an ‘expert on autism?’ No. As I say in my recent textbook on social skills:
‘When planning a book about social skills, it seemed at least sensible, if not essential, to devote a whole chapter to autism. I certainly do not claim to be an expert on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so I suppose I come to this chapter with some trepidation as there are so many amazing textbooks out there on this subject and some much better qualified people than me to write about autism… In fact, maybe we should not necessarily strive to understand ‘what autism is’. Instead, as Dr Damian Milton says, ‘maybe we should strive to understand the ‘autistic people’ we work with as well as we can, and to see this as an ongoing process and mutually respectful interaction.’’
2. Is Talkabout evidence-based?
Yes. Talkabout was initially based on 4 years of a clinical study into working with young adults with a learning disability. Since then, it has been evaluated independently in over 650 schools across the UK and probably many more that I am unaware of. So, has it ‘escaped scrutiny’? No.
3. When the absence of a particular skill is identified, do we always teach it? (Regardless of the impact that it will have on the child)
No. Those of you who have heard me talk or read any of my books, will know that I promote a hierarchical way of teaching skills so that we teach nonverbal skills before verbal skills before assertiveness. Someone doesn’t need to be good at all the nonverbal skills to progress onto learning verbal skills, but it helps to have a few. For example, it is hard to develop the skill of ‘being relevant’ in a conversation without the skill of listening, so we would teach that first. And for some people, it is easier to listen when you are paying attention to the speaker and looking at them. But again, if you have heard me talk about the eye contact rule, you will know that I do not advocate teaching autistic children to make eye contact. I teach them to have an awareness of the triangle rule (just above the eyebrows to the tip of the nose), so that they can make use of it if they need to, and using this rule, they don’t have to look into someone’s eyes.
I will never forget a lady coming up to me in Australia after one of my workshops and thanking me for helping her to understand how she, as an autistic adult, can make eye contact when she needs to. She also asked me why no-one had explained the rule to her in the past 38 years?
4. Is the assessment a tick-box exercise and should it be shared with the child?
No. The assessment is designed to be used by the teacher or clinician and to only involve the child if they can understand the activity. As it says in the book, the assessment is a guide to help the teacher / clinician to plan where to start work, using the hierarchy. The value, and interpretation, of the Talkabout assessment is pivotal to the success or failure of teaching social skills effectively.
5. Is Talkabout about learning to communicate in a neurotypical way?
No. It is partly about learning the rules of social interaction, and to understand what people expect, but it is also about learning to interpret the behaviour of others. I will give you an example. One autistic teenager was confused why some of her friends were getting cross with her. When we looked at what was happening, one thing we saw was that when she had finished talking, she just walked off. When we talked about how most of her friends liked to end their conversations with a ‘see you’ or ‘catch you later’, it helped her to understand why they thought she was rude. We also were then able to help her friends understand that just because she walks off, she is not being rude – she just ‘doesn’t see the point in saying ‘see you’’ etc (her words, not mine). So, it is a two-way process. How we communicate to others and how we interpret the behaviour of others.
So, one of the things we try to help children to learn, when teaching social skills, is to read the other person – because if they can work out what the other person is thinking or feeling, they can adapt their responses accordingly. And children who are good at this, tend to be better at making and keeping friends.
6. Is Talkabout sensitive to cultural differences?
Not explicitly. However, the child should be always assessed and taught within the context of their environment, and culture is implicit in that statement. When I have trained in other parts of the world, we always have discussions about cultural differences, and I would expect teachers and clinicians to be mindful in their approach to what is taught as appropriate within their context. With this in mind, I have questioned my colleagues as to whether Talkabout is useful in their work, and they have always said it is, and that it is up to them to adapt and discuss differences as necessary.
7. Can Talkabout ‘harm’ children?
The comments in some of the Twitter threads that implied that Talkabout causes harm to individuals, and in at least one comment that it is killing children, are not only untrue and unfounded, but are also libellous. I have nothing more to say on this.
So, in summary…
I hope that has clarified some of the points that were made. I am always happy to have healthy discussion about my work, but I will not engage in the kind of communication that happened a few weeks back, especially when some people choose to make personal attacks. Please let’s try to be kind to one another.
So, this is my response as an author. If you have anything constructive to say, please do comment or contact me directly. And please share this with others if you think it would be helpful.
Thanks for reading.
…if you want to read the original twitter threads you can find them if you search for Talkabout or @alexkelly63…or drop me a line and I will be happy to point you in the right direction.