Middle school is a challenging time of life for most students. They often feel uncomfortable in their own skin as their bodies and brains mature and they also have become more aware of being the focus of attention. If they aren’t constantly looking in the mirror, they are checking to see if someone else is watching them. For students with social communication issues or Autism Spectrum Disorder, this transition can be particularly confusing and painful. Suddenly, social interactions are way more complex and these kids are bewildered at the same time they would like a little social support to smooth their path. They often desire friends but have difficulty recognizing signals from others and getting the social context right.
As a therapist, it is challenging to work with middle schoolers with social communication issues. These students rarely bring the issues they need to work on to sessions and they can be too old for some strategies, such as social stories. In middle school, formulaic solutions don’t work well because the social context is much more complex and these students have difficulty recognizing which strategy would work best. Social interactions are becoming more flexible and shift quickly, leaving socially awkward middle schoolers behind in the dust.
Enter Diary of a Social Detective: Real-life Tales of Mystery, Intrigue and Interpersonal Adventure, by Jeffrey E. Jessum, Ph.D. I found this book to be a brilliant and engaging read through some of the most common social gaffes and problems that plague students who “just don’t get it.” While Johnny, the protagonist and social detective, describes himself as someone who was awkward and rejected, when we meet him he is definitely confident and accepted by a diverse group of peers. Johnny solves social problems for his peers through observation in a variety of settings, social problem-solving and solution generation. Johnny’s “clients” struggle with problems, such as invading personal space, not understanding humor, difficulty with voice modulation, being too honest and being a bad sport. Johnny amasses observations and allows you to analyze the situation before he presents his conclusion.
My students and I take turns reading and we talk about passages in the book. Johnny uses emotion rich language which allows the discussion of more subtle emotional reactions. In a brilliant twist near the end of the book, Johnny encounters the case of Righteous Preachley, who is concerned that he has been rejected by his World of Warcraft club. Johnny observes Righteous in several situations, including a classroom debate about whether it is right or wrong for a person with no money and no way to get medicine to steal to get medicine for a sick child. In Righteous’ view, stealing is wrong no matter what.
Now my students are often fond of rules and can be quite confident that following rules is an absolute good. So it is a bit “mind bending” for them to be faced with the contradiction that Johnny, the social detective with whom we have been identifying throughout the book and who has clearly had all the right answers (up to now), takes the view that rules need to be viewed in context. And the kicker is that Johnny says that it is more mature to be flexible in thinking about situations. Johnny explains that being focused on rules is a way of managing anxiety. By the way, it turns out that this “all or nothing” thinking is getting in Righteous’ way with his friends, too.
This book is best read with your child or student. Read slowly and really explore the situations and language to gain the greatest insight into social skill challenges. Maybe your student will become an observer and develop the confidence to be a social detective, too. Check out the social detective website, http://socialdetectives.jeffreyjessum.com/Home.html, for more resources.