The transition from summer back to school can be tough for many students, but it can be especially challenging for families of kids with autism. Getting back into the classroom helps emphasize the importance of social skills for children on the spectrum. Dr. Manny recently talked with Dr. Ronald Leaf, psychologist and the co-founder of Autism Partnership —who shared some insight on how to help these kids build friendships while improving their grades.

“I think in autism for too long the emphasis has been on communication skills which are certainly important, and academic skills, but there hasn't been enough emphasis on social skills,” said Leaf.

Leaf’s company, Autism Partnership is conducting a national tour this fall in support of their latest book, Crafting Connections. Written by Autism Partnership's Leaf and Dr. Mitchell Taubman, the book provides insights on how to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop significant social skills to improve their quality of life.

What is most critical for these children is that they gain meaningful social relationships. Tragically, once many children reach adolescence they experience an alarming rate of loneliness, anxiety and depression that can have devastating effects on them and their family members alike.

“Research shows that the children with the social skills that lead to meaningful friendships and meaningful connections (have) a higher quality of life, less depression, less loneliness — so it's absolutely essential in education and treatment.” Leaf said.

A recent study, published in Education and Treatment of Children showed that 45 out of 64 children in the preliminary analysis made such remarkable progress that they obtained IQs within the normal range and successfully completed grade level work in regular education settings.

Through his national book tour and lecture series, Leaf hopes to provide parents with ways to help their children develop significant social skills to improved their quality of life.

“It really goes through curriculum exactly what would you teach and how do you teach it so that we have the opportunity to help children develop those very critical skills, and to helping teachers and helping parents.”

So how can parents help? Set up some play dates.

“I think it's critical at home that we engineer play dates, (for the child with autism) so that there are friends coming in,” Leaf said. “It may start off with not much of a relationship, but just the availability to start learning that being around peers, the having fun with peers.”

Leaf said that parents can also sit in on the play dates and observe their children.

“It's looking at where are some of the differences, where are some of the problem areas. And perhaps doing some mini-teaching sessions looking at what the problems may be, it may be that compromising is an issue, and need to teach how to negotiate, or having similar play interest,” said Leaf.

To learn more, log on to www.autismpartnership.com