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Asperger’s Skill Building Network: Practical Strategies for Transition and Change

Due to social skills deficits, the transition into life after school can be especially difficult for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, particularly those higher functioning individuals who required fewer supports in high school. With the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders increasing rapidly (U.S. rate: 1 in 68, New Jersey rate: 1 in 45; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014), the needs of this population require immediate attention. There are several curricula for social skills instruction targeting children and adolescents with high functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome (e.g., Baker, 2003, 2006; Garcia-Winner, 2007; McAfee, 2002; Myles, Trautman, & Schelvan, 2004). However, with the exception of Jed Baker’s work (2005), programs targeting young adults and adults are sparse. Furthermore, little research exists evaluating the effectiveness of these programs (Koning, Magill-Evans, Volden, & Dick, 2013; Myles & Simpson, 2001). Based on the same principles as those interventions used with children, namely cognitive behavioral skills training, the National Institute for People with Disabilities of New Jersey’s (NIPD/NJ) Asperger’s Skill Building Network (ASBN) additionally incorporates alternative strategies, such as acting (Davies, 2004), cartooning (Gray, 1994), and yoga (Betts, 2006) to facilitate growth in social skills. NIPD/NJ is a YAI network member.

The Asperger’s Skill Building Network (ASBN) is an intensive and comprehensive social skills instruction and support program for post high school individuals with Asperger’s syndrome/autism spectrum disorders and those with similar traits. Groups of up to 12 participants meet with two master’s level clinical staff, twice per week, for five hours per day. During these five hours, participants receive support, acceptance, and practical feedback from peers and staff while learning and practicing various social skills ranging from basic social skills (e.g., recognizing emotions, conversation skills, and coping with stress) to more complex social skills (e.g., conflict resolution, making, keeping, and deepening friendships, dating, and navigating romantic relationships). Also included in the year-long curriculum are social skills related to obtaining and keeping a job.

Program evaluation results from ASBN’s first year of implementation revealed that the program served 41 individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, high functioning autism, or related conditions. Participants ranged in age from 21 to 61 with a mean age of 27; 88 percent were male; 83 percent were identified as Caucasian, 10 percent as Hispanic, 5 percent as Asian, and 2 percent as African American. The average length of time in the program was 5.3 months, with a range from two weeks to 1 year.

Using self-assessment and observational ratings at the beginning of participation and at three-month intervals, results indicated that participants experienced significant improvement in social skills, emotion regulation, and executive functioning (i.e., perspective-taking, empathy, time management) and job-readiness skills (see Chart 1). Not surprisingly there was some attrition in the program due to transportation problems, jobs, dissatisfaction with the program, or other conflicts. Of the 41 initial participants, eight left before the first progress evaluation at three months. The remaining 33 participants were reduced to 15 members of the group at the end of six months. About half of that number left within the next few weeks, leaving just seven group members from the original 41 to take the final evaluation after nine months of study.

The results of the first evaluation completed at the end of the initial three months were very encouraging as participants showed significant progress in all evaluated areas. The participant’s self-evaluations of growth in job readiness over the first trimester showed little improvement, only 2 percent. But it is worth noting that a focus on vocational skills would not be introduced until the fourth month.

Staff observations estimated participant growth in those first three months at 31 percent for recognizing and coping with their emotions, 28 percent for job readiness, 26 percent for executive functioning and 24 percent for communication and social skills. The self-reported estimates from the participants came in at 7 percent, 2 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively. The overall statistics for improvement in all areas of functioning were 25 percent according to staff observations and 6 percent by the participants. It was during the second trimester of the study, when more emphasis was given to developing vocational skills, that job readiness began to show real improvement, from the participant’s perspective. All areas exhibited growth, and the amount of growth perceived by both the observers and the participants was much more in agreement. Both groups estimated an overall improvement of 5 percent in the period from three-six months.

Participants saw their ability to deal with their emotions as having improved to 10 percent, job readiness grew to 9 percent, executive functioning was perceived as rising to 17 percent and their communication and social skills were gauged to be at 13 percent. Staff observers showed higher numbers in their evaluations: 39 percent for emotional control, 36 percent for job readiness, 42 percent in executive functioning, while communications and social skills were estimated at 33 percent.

The steady growth continued as the support group moved from the sixth to the ninth month of the study, with the greatest strides being made in vocational and coping skills. In job readiness, staff observers perceived an impressive 13 percent increase. Participants also felt substantial improvement, estimating their growth at 8 percent during the third trimester. Overall growth in vocational skills since the beginning of the study was estimated by staff observers to be an improvement of 47 percent. Participants’ self-reports indicated that they felt a 26 percent increase during the same period.

The ability to recognize and cope with one’s own emotions got a solid 42 percent improvement estimate after nine months, according to staff observers. That is an increase of 6 percent since the six-month evaluations. However, self-reports from the participants indicated that they found even greater improvement in themselves, turning in a finding of 8 percent growth since the sixth month and an overall improvement of 24 percent since the program’s inception. In the ninth month evaluation, all remaining areas of functioning improved, with the degree of growth being about the same according to both staff observers and self-reporting participants. All agreed that improvement developed at a rate of 3 or 4 percent. Communication and social skills, as seen by staff observations, grew an overall 33 percent since the program’s start, and self-reports indicated 19 percent growth. Executive functioning showed the most overall growth during the nine-month period, estimated at 50 percent by staff and 37 percent by participants.

Following completion of the nine-month study, further information and perspective was gained by asking participants and their families to evaluate their perception of improvement, if any, in multiple skill areas. Open-ended questions enabled those being polled to expand on changes and growth they noticed over the course of the program.

Improvements in socialization and communication skills, such as recognizing social cues, were considered to be the most helpful and significant elements in the program. This includes an appreciation of the opportunities presented in the ability to socialize and be around other individuals with Asperger’s syndrome. The use of mock interviews in the program was also mentioned favorably. Sixty-five percent of family members most often rated these portions of the program as having the most significant value.

Finally, progress on participants’ goals via service plans revealed some goal attainment after three months of participation (39 percent), and accomplishment of goals increased to 73 percent after six months. Participants who remained in the program for at least nine months accomplished, on average, 72 percent of their goals (note that more than half of these participants had added one or more goals to their service plans over their tenure).

The findings from this first year suggest that the continuation of cognitive behavioral skills training and alternative strategies beyond secondary education (and, in some case, post-secondary education) promote significant improvement in executive functioning, self-regulation, social skills and job readiness skills.

References

Baker, J. (2003). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

 

Baker, J. (2005). Preparing for life: Complete guide for transitioning to adulthood for those with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

 

Baker, J. (2006). The social skills picture book: For high school and beyond. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

 

Betts, D. E. & Stacey, W. (2006). Yoga for children with autism spectrum disorders. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

 

Davies, A. (2004). Teaching Asperger’s students social skills through acting: All their world’s a stage. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

 

Garcia-Winner, M. (2007). Thinking about you thinking about me. San Jose, CA: Social Thinking Publishing.

 

Gray, C. (1994). Comic strip conversations. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

 

Koning, C., Magill-Evans, J., Volden, J., & Dick, B.(2013).Efficacy of cognitive behavior therapy-based social skills intervention for school-aged boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 7(2013), 1282-1290.

 

McAfee, J. (2002). Navigating the social world: A curriculum for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, high functioning autism, and related disorders. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

 

Myles, B. S., Trautman, M. L., & Schelvan, R. L. (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

 

Myles, B. S. & Simpson, R. L. (2001). Understanding the hidden curriculum: An essential social skill for children and youth with Asperger’s Syndrome. Intervention in School and Clinic, 36(5), 279-286.

 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years-Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63(2), 1-21. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr.

 

Manina Urgolo Huckvale, EdD, is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Special Education and Counseling at William Paterson University urgolohuckvalem@wpunj.edu.

Irene Van Riper, EdD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education and Counseling at William Paterson University vanriperi@wpunj.edu.

Alex Gitter, MS, is the program supervisor for the Asperger’s Skill Building Network of NIPD-NJ and a graduate student in the Professional Counseling program at William Paterson University alexandra.gitter@yai.org.

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