Teaching Social Boundaries to Developmentally Disabled Adults

Instructor: Abigail Cook
In order for our students to be included and accepted in their communities, it's critical that they understand socially appropriate behavior. Let's look at some strategies for teaching adults with developmental disabilities appropriate social boundaries.

Social Boundaries

If you've ever worked with adults with disabilities, you're probably familiar with some of the following uncomfortable scenarios:

  • A student with autism walks up to strangers and smells their hair.
  • A 20-year old with Down syndrome tries to hug everyone she meets.
  • Another student kisses babies in their strollers while shopping at the mall.
  • While eating out at a restaurant, some of your students talk with their mouths open, burp out loud, and leave food stuck on their faces.

Adults with developmental disabilities rarely have the social skills they need to act appropriately around others. Social boundaries are rules that we follow because they're considered acceptable behavior. For example, wearing clothes in public, saying ''please,'' and shaking hands when you meet someone are all social rules, or norms, that we follow. This lesson will discuss several ways you might teach and practice social boundaries with adults with developmental disabilities.

Developmental Disabilities

Let's quickly review what developmental disabilities are and how they affect social interactions. Developmental disabilities include permanent disabilities that begin at birth and significantly inhibit a person's ability to function. A few examples of developmental disabilities include autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and behavioral disorders. These disabilities can restrict the ability to take care of oneself, learn new information, live independently, and interact appropriately with others.

Teaching Social Boundaries

Our ability to interact with other people is crucial to our independence, happiness, and quality of life. Adults with developmental disabilities often struggle in social situations because they haven't learned appropriate skills. Typical children and adolescents learn social skills by watching others. Someone with a developmental disability will need more explicit instruction in order to acquire these skills.

In this next section, we'll look at a few examples of social boundaries you can discuss with your students. The strategies highlighted in each section can be applied to a variety of concepts and skills, so adjust them based on your individual learners and resources.

Appropriate Physical Contact

Our interactions with loved ones, friends, and strangers often include some form of physical contact, but there are distinct lines we do not cross when it comes to touching people in these three groups. For example, it's okay to kiss our moms on the cheek, but we would never kiss or hug strangers.

Appropriate touching can be taught in a variety of ways. Modeling is a strategy where a teacher demonstrates a concept and students learn by watching. Have your students sit and watch while you demonstrate and explain the different forms of touch and when we use them. Model things like high fives, handshakes, and hugs; then try including these examples in different scenarios.

Role-playing is another effective strategy where two or more people act out a scenario and students observe. With you and an aide or other school employee as actors, demonstrate some different scenarios with which your students may be familiar, including:

  • Seeing an old friend at the library
  • Watching a football game with friends
  • Going on a date
  • Visiting your grandmother

During these role-playing activities, have your students watch for the different ways you did and did not touch each other. Then briefly review and discuss the rules of physical contact with different people.

It should be noted that the most important thing for our students to understand in regards to physical contact with others is that touching of any form is only appropriate if both people want to be touched.

Nonverbal Communication

The tricky thing about social interaction is that it includes a lot of nonverbal communication that's hard to recognize and interpret; facial expressions and body language play a huge role in our interactions with others. Here are a few ideas for helping adults with developmental disabilities understand boundaries when it comes to nonverbal communication.

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