Social and emotional learning is a complex process in which children and adults acquire and utilize skills that are necessary to interact with oneself and others in a positive manner. Core competencies for individuals to learn include managing one’s emotions, setting and achieving positive life goals, establishing and maintaining positive interpersonal relationships, feeling and showing empathy for others, and making responsible decisions (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2010). These critical abilities are necessary for maintaining successful relationships with others, gaining meaningful employment, navigating daily life skills, and problem-solving issues that arise in life, particularly as one moves toward adulthood and greater independence. Due to the primary characteristics of autism, individuals on the spectrum tend to fall short in these crucial skills if not provided access to systematic, intensive supports to address these areas of need.
A recent study (Jones, et al., 2015) in the American Journal of Public Health documented the relationship between the social and emotional skills of kindergarten students and future wellness in 25-year-olds. Interestingly, this study demonstrated that there were statistically significant associations among measured social and emotional skills in kindergarten and critical young adult outcomes. The authors identified these outcomes across many domains that impact one’s social and emotional well-being, including education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health. Understanding this significant association is important for early identification and intervention to provide social and emotional learning when children are young and to continue these supports throughout the school years.
A primary emphasis of a student’s educational programming should be on the development of social skills to succeed in life. Recognizing this need early on is especially important for individuals with autism. Due to the complexities of developing comprehensive programming to address the myriad of potential core deficits, as well as the likelihood of substantial lessening of services as the student ages out of the school system, identification of social and emotional goals should be a priority throughout formal schooling and needs to continue through adulthood. While many individuals whose development is typical will acquire and demonstrate prosocial skills as a result of social modeling, those on the autism spectrum require direct and sustained intervention, planned procedures to foster generalization, and monitoring of their progress.
Initial and ongoing efforts should be made to identify an individual’s strengths and areas of needed development through assessment of social and emotional skills. There are various measures that can assist, such as the Adaptive Behavior Assessment System – Third Edition (Harrison & Oakland, 2015), which can be administered on behalf of individuals of all ages and helps to assess the capability of the individual to live independently as an adult. Similarly, the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales – Third Edition (Sparrow, et al., 2016) can be used across the lifespan to assist with program planning and progress monitoring. Additionally, The Assessment of Functional Living Skills (Partington & Mueller, 2012) provides a detailed assessment of practical life skills to maximize independence. Each of these tools can be used to determine the individual’s baseline skills so that proper goal selection and educational planning can take place most efficiently.
Many social and emotional skills can be taught through the 3-D approach of “discuss, demonstrate, do” (Asher, et al., 2010). Within the discussion step, individuals are taught the rationale for learning the skill and the steps involved. An example of this is teaching the student why to initiate a text message and how they can ask a friend for help. The second step involves the instructor or a peer model demonstrating the skill while the student watches. Last, the student participates in the skill by doing it while receiving coaching and feedback. Role-play may continue until the learner demonstrates proficiency with the skill, and then additional practice opportunities should be planned with support. Such support oftentimes is provided via a job coach or supervisor, trained instructional assistant, or parent/guardian.
It is also important to consider whether the individual possesses the knowledge of the skill and can perform it under certain circumstances but not others. In this case, the student may have deficits in performance or generalization. Performance deficits may be seen when the individual can discuss the skill, list what to do or demonstrate it in practice, but he or she does not consistently exhibit the skill when needed. The individual exhibiting skills only in certain controlled situations or only with familiar people may have difficulty generalizing acquired skills and therefore may need additional practice opportunities in novel settings with coaching. Furthermore, once the skill has been mastered and generalized, fluency (i.e., the rate and accuracy in which the skill is demonstrated) should be addressed to ensure that the learner can perform the skill quickly enough to use it effectively. Helping the individual to master the skill with automaticity is critical so that they can integrate the skill into their everyday life and navigate an infinite number of situations they may encounter.
Thus, while the 3-D approach for teaching skills provides a simple method for instruction, individuals may need significant supports to effectively use these skills in the natural environment. Utilizing evidence-based strategies to develop these skills will maximize the likelihood of skill acquisition, performance, and generalization (Wong, et al., 2013). These include, but are not limited to, modeling, reinforcement, peer-mediated instruction, social narratives, task analysis, video modeling, visual supports, etc.
Real life practice is crucial for long-term success and increasing levels of independence. The adults providing support need to carefully and systematically plan to fade these same supports (e.g., prompts, reinforcement procedures) as appropriate. Thus, there is a fundamental difference between shadowing and monitoring progress compared to hovering. Individuals with autism need guidance to identify what is important to them (e.g., living independently, socializing with peers, leisure activities), to set short- and long-term goals that correspond to these (e.g., obtaining and maintaining employment, using public transportation, participating in clubs), and developing the associated skills to successfully move toward these valued paths. For many individuals on the autism spectrum, much adult support is necessary to help identify these areas. Yet, with a focus on the future, a commitment to present actions, and a well-developed plan, the transition (and journey) to and through adulthood may be more successful.
Amy Golden, MS, BCBA and Michael C. Selbst, PhD, BCBA-D are from Behavior Therapy Associates in Somerset, New Jersey and can be reached at agolden@BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com or mselbst@BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com and via their website at www.BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com.
Asher, M. J., Gordon, S. B., Selbst, M.C., Cooperberg, M. (2010). The behavior problems resource kit: Forms and procedures for identification, measurement, and intervention. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Autism New Jersey (2010). Transition Planning Individualized Education Program (IEP) Packet [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.autismnj.org/document.doc?id=45
Autism Speaks (2015). Transition tool kit for families on the journey from adolescence to adulthood [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/docs/family_services_docs/transition.pdf
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2010). Social and Emotional Learning and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Retrieved from http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning-and-positive-behavioral-interventions-and-supports/
Harrison, P. & Oakland, T. (2015). Adaptive behavior assessment system – third edition. WPS: Torrance, CA.
Jones, D.E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health 105(11), 2283-2290.
Partington, J.W. & Mueller, M.M. (2012). The assessment of functional living skills guide. Behavior Analysts, Inc.: Walnut Creek, CA.
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Bric, M. E., Plavnick, J. B., Fleury, V. P., & Schultz, T. R. (2013). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.