Parents and teachers of kids with special needs might talk a lot about “boundaries.” Personal boundaries, social boundaries, emotional boundaries—understanding these social rules is crucial for kids, teens, and young adults with special needs, intellectual disabilities, and individuals on the autism spectrum because they often experience communication, socialization, and behavior difficulties. But why are boundaries so important in teaching social skills?
Teaching kids with special needs about boundaries protects them from harm and unwanted behavior, and teaches them the skills to navigate difficult social situations. These students often require more explicit and varied instruction than their neurotypical peers—creative curriculum that contains different media (films, games, visuals, etc.) is the most effective in getting the message across in a way that will stick. Giving them the knowledge of what’s appropriate and inappropriate teaches them to speak out against harmful touch and unwanted behavior.
The concepts of social distance and social boundaries are difficult to grasp. There’s no official rulebook that describes how we’re all supposed to interact with each other, and relationships are complex and messy by nature. For a student with special needs, this relationship messiness can look like an insurmountable challenge, or a set of invisible rules that don’t seem to make much sense at all. For them to truly understand social boundaries, lessons need to be taught in a practical way that can be applied to everyday life, and it needs to be something that they can practice, apply to their own relationships, and remember long after instruction time ends.
Puberty and hormonal changes can present new challenges in appropriate social behavior. Parents and teachers of students with special needs often worry that these hormonal changes will lead to inappropriate behavior. How can we teach kids to be aware of what constitutes inappropriate behavior to protect them from unwanted touch? And how can we teach them that it’s never OK to inappropriately touch others? The answer is social boundaries education. It’s crucial for parents and teachers to recognize that teaching social boundaries is the best, most effective way to protect their child/student from sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as protect others from inappropriate sexual behavior from their child/student.
Social boundaries form the foundation for healthy relationships. How close you are with someone and how you touch them depends on the relationship you have with them. This is a concept that, for the most part, comes naturally to their neurotypical peers, but students with special needs require specific and memorable lessons to help them practice social skills. In learning social boundaries, these kids will be able to recognize that healthy relationships are founded on consent—no matter how close you are with someone, touch is ONLY appropriate if both people want to touch. They will learn to be aware of what types of touch signal a relationship change and the ways in which they either accept or refuse these signals.
We believe that giving kids with special needs a solid foundation of social boundaries education is one of the best ways to help them succeed and lead healthy, fulfilling lives. We developed our best-selling Circles® VideoModeling® curriculum with this in mind, and we’re extremely passionate about how well it has worked for the special education population. “For many years,” says Barbara Tylenda, PhD, ABPP at the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, “Circles® has provided the children and adolescents we serve a concrete way of understanding the abstract concepts of relationships and relationship safety.” And it really works—the Circles® curriculum has been proven effective by a Harvard University study.
Following the popularity of our Circles® curriculum, developing an app as a supplemental tool was an easy choice for us. The interactive nature of Circles Social Skills Utility™—our brand new social boundaries app— allows users to visualize the different relationship levels they encounter in daily life, and organize them in a way that is meaningful and memorable. This first installment of Circles Social Skills Utility™ focuses on Touch: it teaches students what touch is appropriate vs. what touch is inappropriate, who gets a hug, who gets a high five, fist bump, and everything in between. The user places members of their family, friends, acquaintances and strangers into different “circles” that illustrate how close they can be with these people. In the future we’ll be adding features on what levels of “Talk” and “Trust” are appropriate for each unique relationship your students encounter in their day-to- day lives.
We’re so excited to be sharing Circles Social Skills Utility™ with you, and we look forward to hearing stories of social success as well as some meaningful feedback!