Is your child:
Some children forget the names of classmates, neighbors, and extended family members. You may find yourself reminding your child constantly, “That’s Sarah from your class.” Your child may not greet another child in response to a greeting.
He may be excited for school, but when a classmate says, “Hi Sam!” at the crosswalk he may not respond. Or maybe your child returns the greeting but is never the one to initiate an interaction.
Some children seem spacey or out of touch with others. They may wander around the playground counting rocks, oblivious to other children’s efforts to engage them. Physical play like tag may appeal to your child while more verbal interactions with peers do not.
Some children are like little professors, lecturing others about a topic. Sometimes children have excessive information about a certain topic, such as the Mesozoic era or WW I trench warfare.
When asked about friends, these kids might say, “I haven’t had time to learn their names; I’m too busy doing my work.” When asked about friends, your child may say that every single child in the class is her friend.
Or your child may have a peculiar way of relating to other kids, saying something like, “I have 15 friends, one with brown skin and another with green eyes.” A problem with remembering names is particularly notable if the child’s skills are advanced in other areas.
For example, a child who can speak in an advanced manner for his age but cannot remember anyone’s name is showing a concerning pattern. Sometimes, developmental milestones are met early in terms of motor or language skills, but social skills are not keeping the same pace.
Some children speak in sentences at 9 months old or learn to read by age 3. Despite proclivity in these areas, deficits could be present in social understanding or social cognition. This pattern may indicate a delay in social learning in spite of adequate academic and cognitive learning.
A child who struggles to know people’s names may have poor social skills, attention difficulties, or memory challenges.
Poor social skills are indicated if a child is not forming age-appropriate relationships with peers.
It is noteworthy that children who forget important information about their peers are probably not forming strong relationships with them.
Even a child in kindergarten should know the names of a number of different classmates and be able to talk about what they do together for fun. Unusual descriptions like “my friend is a funny little fellow” could be scripted from a TV show or children’s book. Notice comments that do not sound like a child’s voice.
Sometimes, children who struggle socially have difficulty conceptualizing relationships or understanding the value of them. These children may fail to acknowledge a classmate in another setting and may avoid peers on the playground.
Attention is the ability to focus on something for a reasonable period of time, even when that something is not very interesting. The ability to multitask or to pay attention in an environment requires the child to handle a number of different sensory inputs and to ignore multiple distractions.
For example, a child would need to attend to peers while as he is also listening to the teacher and completing seatwork. Challenges with attention may lead to difficulties making those social connections.
If your child has ADHD, interactions with peers may be very uncomfortable. Many kids with ADHD also have social skills challenges, but the issues tend to follow a certain pattern.
Kids with ADHD may be a bit abrasive, like a ‘bull in a china shop,’ and they may struggle with distractibility and forgetfulness [3,4]. With a little extra teaching and support (i.e. hang the class picture in your child’s bedroom with names listed), your child should remember friends’ names. A child with ADHD is not as likely to be uncomfortable meeting a classmate at the park or running into a friend at the grocery store.
The most likely diagnostic consideration for a child who can never remember classmates’ names is an Autism Spectrum Disorder [1,4,5,6,7,8,9]. Very bright children whose social skills are developing at a slower rate than their cognitive and academic learning may have a mild form of autism.
If your child can learn and remember a number of different things in class and from books but is not as interested in classmates, this behavior is a red flag for autism. Does your child love to read nonfiction but have less interest in character development in fiction stories?
Learning about classmates, including their names, faces, and interests, is part of typical development that does not come automatically for children on the Autism Spectrum. It will be important to look for help if you notice your child is struggling with social development, social communication, and general friendship skills.
Finally, it will be important to look at short-term or long-term memory to be sure that your child isn’t struggling across the board with encoding information into his or her memory. For example, a child who forgets classmates’ names but can give the scientific name for many different dinosaurs probably doesn’t have a general memory issue, but he or she may struggle with selective attention and social learning.
A child who struggles with learning and memory in a global manner (in many subjects and situations) should be evaluated for learning or cognitive delays.
Teach rhyming or association games to help your child remember names. Label pictures of the kids in the class with names and faces. Play a game with your child that involves seeing how many names he or she can remember.
Talk about the children in class, and use their names frequently. Model this behavior for your child.
Put pictures of classmates with names and even some of the child’s interests on your refrigerator. If your child can name all of the American presidents, he can learn the names of ten classmates.
Have play-dates with children in class. Plan structured activities, like a Lego day, an art activity, or a trip to Jump Street. Enroll your child in structured activities that align with his or her interest.
Be careful with team sports like soccer, but individual sports like swimming, gymnastics and martial arts can be great for children who are learning social skills. The adult leaders in clubs and sports are an important component, and you want adults involved who are sensitive and flexible to the learning needs and learning styles of each child.
If you notice other social challenges for your child after providing lots of social outlets and opportunities, it may be time to consider an evaluation to assess for an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Significant challenges with attention can also have social ramifications. ADHD may be diagnosed if you find that your child’s social skills are mostly age-appropriate and that the challenges are primarily due to inattention.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Barkley, Russell A. (2013) Taking Charge of ADHD, Third Edition: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents. Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=taking+charge+of+ADHD
 Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
 Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.
 Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
 Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
 Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
 UCSB PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
 Koegel, Lynn Kern & LaZebnik, Claire (2010). Growing up on the spectrum: A guide to life, love and learning for teens and young adults with autism and Asperger’s.
 Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play
 Higbee, Kenneth. (2008) Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it (A book about Mneumonics)
 The Learning Journey Match It! Memory Spelling (game)
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Previously Licensed on: June 6, 2017
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