After the Webinar: Building Competence and Confidence in Our Clients. Q&A with Dr. Wes Dotson

Webinar presenter Dr. Wes Dotson answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Building Competence and Confidence in Our Clients: Incorporating Social Skills Instruction into Already-Occurring Interactions. Here are just a few of his responses.


Audience Question: You talked a lot about all these social skills but what if we’re not dealing with somebody who has autism or developmental disabilities? Is this really applicable to everyday, average people? 

Dr. Wes Dotson: Absolutely, if you imagine yourself, the first time you go to a party with people you don’t know. Think about the nerves that happen as you walk in that room and you don’t know what everyone in that room is going to do or what they expect. Think about if you’ve ever been called into your boss’s office for the first time and you’ve never had a meeting with that boss to know what kind of boss they are. How do you navigate that sort of uncertainty is about your social skills and about what you know about how to interact with people? Most of our clients in the criminal justice system are there because of poor interactions with other people. Whether they have a diagnosed disability or not, most people who make mistakes don’t end up in the criminal justice system. Think about the cascade of things. You have to make the mistake. You have to encounter law enforcement. They have to interact with you in a way and decide that you need to be arrested instead of –? Then once you’ve been arrested, the DA has to decide whether to charge you or not, to put you in a diversion, versus puts you into a more confined situation then once you’re there, they got to decide when you get parole or they got to decide – a jury in your trial has to decide what they think of you or a caseworker in a very short five-minute meeting has to make a decision about, do I help this person? Are they responsible for their own problems? All of that is impacted by the way that person presents themselves and their social skills. Most of the people who are already into the system who are adjudicated, who are in the contact or incarcerated, who are on probation, they’re there because they didn’t navigate those situations successfully. So, I would argue social skills is the most universal thing. When we think of deficits as a social deficit, rather than a character flaw or something else. So, we just say, hey, they got here because they didn’t know how to work the police officer, they did not know how to work the judge. They didn’t know how to work with their spouse or their family. That is social skills.



Audience Question: How do we apply this to maybe dealing with urban youth who have anger issues and social anxiety? 

Dr. Wes Dotson: Absolutely. I think the application of social skills is always based on when you know about the specific environment. If urban youth have grown up in an impoverished setting or where their social role models behaved in a certain way toward authority or toward each other, those are going to be the social rules they know. And quite frankly, the social rules they expect. Then when they encounter a police officer, they encounter a probation officer or just a member of the community that doesn’t follow those rules, there’s conflict. Part of what we need to do as professionals are to help them see that there are different rules. So maybe they’re angry, and they’ve got social anxiety and say, why are you anxious? Well, that judge never does what I expect, or that judge hates me. Why do you think that judge hates you? Well, he never makes this, or he doesn’t do that. If you started asking why they’re anxious, you’ll often start to hear rules or assumptions about social expectations that you can then unpack, so that when he says, people hate me. Why do you think they hate you? That teacher wouldn’t even talk to me about this or they never asked me about this. If they don’t understand, for example, that a police officer often doesn’t want to engage in a personal conversation, but there are other types of polite conversation you can have with the police officer to build rapport, they may not know how to not be angry, or they may not know what to predict or know how to predict what a different type of behavior will lead to. So, unpacking in your urban situation, what are the challenges? Well, they just will not respect authority. What do you mean by that? They will not avoid ??? They will not dress appropriately. Those become those targeted things that you say, okay, for this kid, why does he need to know to do it differently? Why is that important for him? What to do better for him?

Host: So, what’s the motivation for them to change?

Dr. Wes Dotson: Right.



Audience Question: So, tying into what you just said than Wes. Wes, you talked a lot of examples, like wearing a suit and tie to court, etc. But in many situations, we have clients who are coming from very challenging socio-economic situations. How do we provide this coaching yet being sensitive to the very real economic situations? 

Dr. Wes Dotson: I wish I had a good answer for that. That’s probably one of the hardest things that I’ve encountered in helping clients of mine navigate that system. I’m in West Texas. West Texas is one of those places where on Sundays you wear your best church clothes, even if you’re going out Burger King for lunch. Many of my clients and many of the folks I work with who’ve come into the justice system, it is an almost unfair disadvantage that a judge or a DA will make a judgment about somebody for not wearing a suit, but it happens. Frankly, that’s in my experience, less of social skills thing and more of working to find resources. So, we work with a couple of folks at the public defender’s office and a couple of other charities in town to get dress clothes donated. We maintain a closet of dress clothes in my center, for example. Our career center does the same. But sometimes it might be us, not necessarily teaching with social skills but finding a way to get them something that is a barrier. So, if they don’t have a suit, you can’t teach them how to wear a suit or how to tie a tie. So, it’s a different problem to solve, how do I get a suit. But at least it can lead to that now that I’ve got you in a suit, what do you do with it? How do you wear a suit? I mean, no one told me that you had to behave differently wearing a suit and blue jeans, but you sure do. And that becomes our own ??? Sometimes it’s not a social skill deficit it’s a resource deficit. That’s where you have to know your environment if you know you’ve got a judge who notices that, then you’ve got to engage in different problem solving as well. How can you work with charities or churches, or somebody to find some resources so that your folks aren’t being disadvantaged there? And again, I know that’s imperfect. Like, hey, in an ideal world, everybody donates suits. That’s the best answer I’ve got because sometimes I don’t have a great answer, but it’s important to acknowledge that and to say, sometimes it really is resources, and that’s harder to deal with.



Audience Question: How do you account for generalizing or changing situations? So, for example, if you were told something would happen at seven but it doesn’t happen until eight, or the judge asks a different question than the one you practice. I have a lot of people who are really stuck in that concrete mindset of it happens in a certain way. How do we help our clients adapt? 

Dr. Wes Dotson: So, you teach that as a specific skill, and actually, that’s a very common program for kids with autism because they’re very rigid in their schedule and rule-dependent. So, I teach a social skill called handling surprises. I might say something like, “Hey, sometimes people don’t follow the rules and that’ll make you mad, and that’s okay but just because it makes you mad doesn’t mean you get to yell or make them do what you want. So, here’s what we need to do when you’re surprised.” I’m going to imagine a teenager here to know If you feel really angry when the judge didn’t meet when he said he would, the first thing you need to do is take a big deep breath. Physiologically calm down and remind yourself, sometimes things happen differently, and that’s OK, I can handle that. Then, when they happen differently than, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to figure out how it’s different. I’m going to figure out what I need to do if I needed to do anything differently or just wait. And then I’m going to focus my energy on planning for that. For unexpected questions, that may be something you have to teach from the beginning. So, for example, if you know, the judge or you know a probation officer doesn’t always follow the script, if you will, then you train to that. You say, “Okay, look, this judge, you might get asked, what’s your favorite football team is? He’s doing that to put you at ease, but it can be really jarring if you aren’t expecting it.” So, I’m going to lob some questions at you. What’s your favorite football team? What’s your favorite color? How do you feel about your grandmother. Your file here says she died when you were seventh. I’m going to throw out curveballs. I’m literally going to put them as much as I can in that situation with me to practice it first. Whatever it is. So, if I can, in a way, predict the unpredictability, I practice that. Sometimes it’s predictable to say it’s unpredictable. I have a relative, like that. If I go to that relative’s house, we are never going to eat when she says we will. We’re probably not going to eat where she says we would. There’ll be 2 or 3 people, I didn’t expect to be there. So, my client, and it’s just to know, when I go there, nothing will be what I expect.


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