Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by impairments in the domains of social interaction, communication and behavior. For many individuals with ASDs, especially those with Asperger’s Disorder and high functioning autism, social interaction and communication difficulties can have the most profound impact on their everyday functioning. Therefore, a focus to ameliorate social deficits has branched out to the schools, where children with ASDs spend the greater part of their day and tend to have the greatest number of social interactions. Most commonly, social skills intervention in the schools takes the form of social skills groups. Although there is an evidence-base for social skills groups, there is neither standardized format nor content for these groups. Accordingly, while some groups may be tremendously beneficial, others, while not harmful, may not be of enough direct benefit to warrant pull-out from the classroom or other school activities. This article will outline the fundamental attributes of worthwhile social skills groups for children in the schools to help parents decide if the social skills group being offered to their children is right for them. Parents are encouraged to weigh the pros and cons of having their children join the social skills group prior to enrollment.
What skills should be taught in a social skills group? According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), essential social skills can be classified into four categories:
- Survival Skills (listening, following directions, ignoring distractions)
- Interpersonal Skills (sharing, asking for permission, turn-taking, joining others)
- Problem-Solving Skills (asking for help, offering an apology, decision-making)
- Conflict Resolution Skills (coping with bullying and peer pressure)
NASP suggests that any school-based social skills curriculum utilize an approach that focuses on behavior regulation and teaching appropriate social behavior. Furthermore, they recommend that the program be consistent in the language used and skills taught so that participants are more likely to reliably apply the skills in real-life social situations. In order to develop a beneficial social skills group, schools should make sure their groups include the following elements:
- Focus on facilitating desirable social behaviors as well as eliminating undesirable ones
- Emphasize the learning, performance, generalization, and maintenance of appropriate social behaviors which includes providing students with immediate feedback
- Employ primarily positive strategies to encourage participants to learn new desirable social behaviors
- Provide training and practice opportunities in a wide range of settings with different groups and individuals to facilitate generalization of new skills to multiple, real life situations
- Draw on assessment strategies, including functional assessments of social behavior, to identify those children in need of more intensive interventions as well as target skills for instruction
- Enhance social skills by increasing the frequency of an appropriate behavior in typical environments to address the naturally occurring causes and consequences
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), an evidence-based practice is a treatment that is supported by systematic research studies when conducted by experienced, highly trained clinicians. Treatments considered evidence-based are typically the most highly-regarded and become a standard of care in a field. There are a number of evidence-based techniques known to be effective in teaching social skills and are recommended elements of social skills groups in the schools. These techniques include: typical peer mediators, social stories and video modeling.
Peer mediators are neurotypical peers from the school who can serve as models of appropriate social behavior and provide safe opportunities for children with ASDs to practice learned social skills. The goal of peer mediators is to increase the number of opportunities for successful social interactions in the natural school environment. Another evidence-based technique that is often used in social skills groups are social stories, popularized by Carol Gray. Social stories use a storybook format to describe different social situations where the social underpinnings may be unclear or difficult for the children to understand. The stories give details about each situation in a straight-forward manner. This assists in the improvement of the children’s understanding of the situation, helps attune their expectations and, thus, increases the likelihood of their responses being appropriate. Rather than change the children’s behavior, the goal of social stories is to prepare children for what will occur and set them up for success. Recently, video modeling has also become a popular tool used in social skills groups. Videos displaying appropriate social behavior are shown to group members with the goal that they will act in kind when faced with similar situations in their lives. Video modeling is particularly well-suited for children with ASDs because they are designed to address areas that often cause them difficulties, such as over-selective attention and restricted areas of focus. They are also applicable for use with children with ASDs, as they typically prefer visual stimuli and tend to be visual learners.
Additionally, to improve the effectiveness of their social skills groups, it is recommended that schools involve parents and other caregivers. Parents and caregivers can give the group leader important information about their child’s social functioning in other contexts and help reinforce learned skills at home, promoting generalization of the skills.
Before deciding to enroll their child in a school-based social skills group, parents are encouraged to ask questions and make sure the group is going to meet their child’s needs, use the most effect strategies, and employ research supported techniques. In sum, worthwhile social skills groups in the schools:
- Use qualified professionals who have experience working with children with ASDs and within a group therapy context
- Focus on developing the four key sets of social skills recommended by NASP (Survival, Interpersonal, Problem-Solving, Conflict Resolution)
- Make use of evidence-based techniques
- Include group members who are on a similar social skill level
- Be scheduled during a time where students will not miss essential instructional time
- Include parent and caregiver to obtain vital information and assist with generalization
Jennifer Gueguen Weber, EdM, SM, MS, is a psychology extern at the Fay J. Lindner Center for Autism. She is pursuing her doctorate in School-Clinical Child Psychology at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. Natalia Appenzeller, PhD, is the Clinical Director at the Fay J. Lindner Center for Autism.
The Fay J. Lindner Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, an affiliate of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, was formed to meet the needs of children and adults with autism and related developmental disabilities and their families. The Lindner Center is located in a state-of-the-art facility on AHRC Nassau’s Brookville campus. The Lindner Center offers a wide range of programs, clinical services (including individual, family and group therapy, social skills training and comprehensive and diagnostic evaluations), professional training, and community education. To learn more about the Lindner Center and the services we provide, please visit us on the web at www.FayJLindnerCenter.org .