Stourbridge teen, Isaac Bolton,has been helping to inform a new report released by Kings College London (KCL), commissioned by the UK's flagship youth programme, National Citizen Service (NCS) which is being delivered across the West Midlands by APM.
The report looks at how social skills developed early in life can reduce loneliness, improve wellbeing and earnings in later life and makes recommendations that 16 year old Isaac believes all teens could benefit from.
Authored by Dr Jennifer Lau, researcher specialising in the psychology of adolescent mental health at KCL, the report explores the current levels of 'social intelligence', defined as the ability to apply our understanding of people's emotions to decide the appropriate form of interaction with others, amongst the next generation, raising some key concerns. Most surprisingly, the study shows teenagers today are experiencing higher levels of loneliness than those aged 55+ and are particularly lacking skills enabling them to interact with people from different backgrounds.
Isaac Bolton, was contacted by NCS on behalf of KCL due to his own dramatic transformation in social skills from the time he spent on the programme to see how their experience could influence others.
As a young man with Asperger syndrome Isaac once described himself as a social outcast, struggled to get involved in social situations and didn't believe he had the skill to talk to people.
It wasn't until going on NCS that Isaac left these feelings behind. He met new people from different backgrounds that he was able to connect with in a way it hadn't done before. Being put in a new environment gave him the opportunity to be himself around new people, and with that experience came respect and friends - something which has changed his life.
With his new found skill, Isaac loves to communicate with like-minded people and help others. Beyond volunteering at an Oxfam shop at the till, he has set up a new project called Diverse Nation.
Isaac, says: "Being born with Asperger syndrome, I knew there could be some difficulty interacting with people, but I wouldn't even put myself out there. Expressing myself was too difficult, and working in a team was something I simply couldn't do. I put these barriers around myself that led to feelings of depression and loneliness, and I knew I needed to tackle these issues to be happy."
He continues; "Going on the NCS programme really tested me, I had all these new people around me and instead of shying away I took the opportunity to expand my skills at relationships. I couldn't believe how far I'd come. I'm now passionate about helping people fit in, so much so that I'm developing a programme of sessions to help us understand how to have a more inclusive society from gender, sexuality, race and more. My project, Diverse Nation, will help everyone communicate with each other, a project that I now feel I can run since NCS."
Isaac's mother, Rachael, has noticed a huge difference in how he now engages with life. "I'm proud of the confidence he's gained and the new network of friends he has. I always recognised his academic ability, but his confidence in putting himself out there in front of people caused me to worry about his future. NCS gave him the tools he needed to try new things, meet people and make a change for issues he is passionate about."
Dr Jennifer Lau points to parents, teachers and peers alike to introduce young people to new experiences and opportunities where they can improve their social mobility in order to develop social intelligence. Evidence also suggests social intelligence, and its associated skill set, such as teamwork, communication and negotiation skills, is now more important in new recruits and career progression than IQ or academic intelligence . They even estimate that salaries of those with high social intelligence levels could be accelerated by 31%.
Rob Houlston, head of NCS at APM says: "Isaac is testimony to the fact that social intelligence can be a learned skill that gets you far in life. Before the programme, he had little belief in himself and struggled to go up and strike a conversation with others. Now it's like looking at a new person, Isaac is thriving with his new found confidence and is already finding life so much easier as a result of an increased social intelligence, which has a lot to do with the experience he had at meeting new people from different backgrounds on the programme."
NCS widens horizons by helping young people build lasting friendships that bridge social divides and grow their aspirations by developing crucial skills for work and life. The programme takes place across West Midlands this summer and is open to all 15-17 year olds for no more than £50.