But in the same way as techniques have been developed to help with those with academic learning difficulties, there are now skills that can aid children with poor social interaction, according to American child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner, who first devised the Social Thinking programme to teach "bright but socially clueless students" at high schools in California. Her methods aim to help children become aware of how to act "acceptably" to others. Her ideas are rapidly gaining currency here and are being taught to teachers and parents at the New Learning Centre in North London.
Crucially, Social Thinking is not just used not just to help children on the autistic spectrum, but also less popular youngsters, who have not been diagnosed with any problem but who, without guidance, may never learn the rules of friendship. Garcia Winner says: "Concepts like how to share, how to co-operate and when to say the expected thing are complicated and sophisticated ideas. Some children may need more help understanding these concepts than others. Their brains may not be making all the connections. They know why they like other children, but they may not realise what they are expected to do for other children to like them back in return. Yet even if they don't get it by intuition, we can teach children how to be 'social detectives' – to think about how others see them and to use their eyes, ears and brains to learn what is expected from them."
With Social Thinking techniques, youngsters are taught that in the same way that they can be smart at maths, computers, music or English, they can also have "social smarts", which can be improved through practice. Part of the approach is to teach children that if they act in ways that make others feel awkward, such as speaking at the wrong times, or becoming obsessive about certain subjects, others will avoid them. Parent educator Noel Janis-Norton believes it is revolutionary because it actively teaches children how to make others comfortable around them. She believes the approach will help "a sizeable minority" who are social outsiders.
Janis -Norton says: "Having poor social skills is a learning difficulty that needs to be addressed. These kids are also wrongly seen by teachers as deliberately obstructionist in class – for example, because they don't understand that a suggestion is actually an instruction. In fact the part of their brain that is supposed to interpret these signals is wired differently. When they realise this, both teachers and parents often feel very guilty that they once got so angry or impatient with them. But it's like getting angry with someone with a limp.
Luckily the brain is very malleable. Whenever we learn, we are changing the brain. It can be as simple as teaching children the best way to use eye contact or what body language to use in the playground.
"For example, many of these kids will be left on the fringes of games because they will be looking away from the group they want to be part of, instead of registering their interest. Simply teaching kids to turn their body and shoulders towards the group can be enough to let others know they want to be accepted."
Looking back at our own schooldays, most of us remember the loner in our class who nobody wanted to play with at break-time.
But Janis-Norton is hopeful it's a curse that shouldn't befall future generations. "It's tragic how many children have been ostracised because of this neurological trait in the past. Yet so many other children can be spared from suffering in the same way."