By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D.
Even in pre-pandemic times, we saw many children and adolescents where social difficulties were the primary concern. Now, almost two years into the life-altering changes brought on by COVID-19, it is rare that I see a young person whose parents do not raise social concerns. Some common concerns include:
My child does not know how to play with peers.
My child is anxious/fearful around peers.
My child avoids peers and/or would rather play alone.
My child does well with 1-2 peers but cannot handle a group.
My child does not have friends and/or does not seem to know how to make friends.
These are all important, valid concerns. Social development is critical to evaluate and understand when we look at a child’s overall functioning, and early social skills lay an important foundation for later independent functioning, fulfilling interpersonal relationships, and vocational/academic success. Concerns about social presentation (i.e., how your child “looks” or behaves socially) can have many varied causes. Sometimes the cause is clear and relatively straightforward to determine with a neuropsychological evaluation. For example, an evaluation may lead to an autism diagnosis, explaining why a child is struggling socially. Other times, the exact cause is unclear, and probably related to many different factors all coming together. For example, children with ADHD very often present with social challenges, though the path from ADHD to social problems is not always “cut and dry.”
For children coming in to testing now (and over the past 18 months), some of the biggest complicating factors are the social isolation, online learning, and reduced social opportunities related to the pandemic. This is not to say that there are no longer clear cases where a child has autism at the root of their social difficulties – there certainly are. However, for each child now, we must consider the impact that COVID has had on their specific social development. This will depend on the child’s age (and age at the onset of the pandemic), school placement and educational environment, family structure (e.g., siblings and/or other children in the home), and community policies. For example, young children who are attending daycare/private preschool may actually not have missed as much socialization time, as many daycares re-opened after only a few months of closure. This is not to minimize the disruption or extreme challenge of such closures to families; for young children, however, it is likely that their social development is not radically impacted by a few months of reduced social opportunities. In contrast, an elementary-age child may have experienced well over a year of reduced socialization, with remote learning in place for many communities until the fall of 2021.
In all cases, pre-existing and/or co-occurring areas of difficulty are extremely important in our conceptualization of why a child is struggling socially. If your child will have an evaluation soon and you have social concerns, you can prepare by thinking about:
- What was my child like socially before COVID?
- Did they have strong friendships? Did they have conflict or “drama” with peers often? Were they invited to playdates and/or birthday parties?
- What was my child like emotionally before COVID?
- Happy? Easy-going? Quiet and shy? Sensitive? Irritable?
- What were the practical, observable things that changed from March 2020 through the present?
- How much time did they spend doing online learning? Did someone in their family become very ill? Lose a job? How isolated were they?
- What was my child’s response to the things that happened above?
- Did they enjoy online learning? Were they fearful about becoming sick? Did they miss spending time with friends or family?
- What other areas seem to be challenging for them?
- Communicating? Reading? Managing feelings? Paying attention?
All of these are helpful pieces of information that you can communicate to an evaluator. This will build context for the concerns that you see now, and help us move through the web of complex possibilities that may be contributing to your child’s social challenges. Remember that it is always good to be watchful and thoughtful when your child is struggling. At the same time, keep in mind that many individuals (children, adolescents, and adults alike) will require long periods of time to rebuild their skills, stamina, strength, and sense of safety. It is still OK not to be OK quite yet.
About the Author
Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.
Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.
Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.
Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.