Social interaction is one of the core challenges faced by individuals across the entire autism spectrum. These students generally fall significantly behind their peers in the social realm, and exhibit social behavior that frustrates or offends family, teachers and peers.

Because these social deficits are “hard-wired” – they stem from different brain wiring – our job as parents and educators is to teach these children social thinking and social skills that neurotypical children learn almost by osmosis. And, teach we must. Our students’ social difficulties often result in exclusion and bullying. Their difficulty forming positive relationships results in anxiety, frustration and few meaningful friendships, if any. Direct social skills instruction should be part of the teaching curriculum and individual education program (IEP) for every student with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Yet, we miserably fall behind in achieving this goal.

Part of the problem is the very nature of social thinking itself: flowing, changing, highly context driven, with few rules that generalize across situations. Where and how do we start? Another area often overlooked is the composition of the social skills group itself. Why do some groups work well, while others quickly fall apart? These questions led to an investigation of the factors that contribute to an effective social skills group. Based on four years’ experience tweaking and refining two social skills groups, ten components arose as important to group functioning and success, and should be considered when planning and implementing your own efforts to teach social skills.

Participants

Should social groups include neurotypical peers? The response from twelve students in both middle school groups was a resounding “No!” Andrew, a sixth-grader says, “I like to be with others who have experienced the same thing.” Younger students may accept typical peers in the group, but older students often don’t feel comfortable around them when working on areas of weakness. These kids don’t want a “peer buddy” but they truly want to improve their social skills and learn how to develop and maintain positive relationships. “Some kids get angry (with us). The kids in this group are more accepting”, states Matthew, a seventh-grader.

The age range within our social skills groups spans three grades, which seems to be appropriate. Middle school and high school students are often successful with students who may not be of the same age. Elementary students should be grouped with no more than a two or three year age span.

Instructor(s)

The two groups interviewed for this article have always been lead by the school’s behavioral consultant, the school social worker and myself (an autism consultant). It is essential that the instructor(s) have an extensive understanding of autism spectrum disorders and effective strategies that support these students. Damian, an eight-grade student remarks about who would be a good group leader: “Not any teacher. Either a Special Education teacher or a nice teacher that can really understand us.” Hans Asperger had a similar perspective when referring to children with autism. He stated, “…They can be guided and taught, but only by those who give them true understanding and genuine affection, people who show kindness towards them …”.

Duration and Frequency

The duration and frequency of the social group may be predicated by the schedules of both the leaders and the group participants. It is difficult to present material and have opportunities for practice in less than twenty or thirty minutes. Longer sessions allow for review, games, snacks, and/or unstructured interaction. Ideal group trainings range from thirty to ninety minutes. Groups should meet regularly with time in between to practice learned strategies in real life situations. Weekly meetings are ideal, though twice monthly meetings can work as well.

Meeting Time

Our middle school groups initially started meeting during lunch periods. This, we thought, wouldn’t interfere with academics. It turned out to be a disaster. Lunch periods were too short, students were often late, and it was difficult for them to concentrate while eating.

Next we tried a one-hour after school group. This provided ample teaching time and did not compete against other social opportunities within the day. Holding group after school, however, did present a problem with transportation and often students did not attend because parents were unable to adjust their schedules to pick up students who normally rode a bus home.

Finally, we moved the group meeting to last period, every other week. This gave us fifty minutes of teaching time without holding students after school. Each teacher is required to release students on group days without penalty and this has increased attendance dramatically.

Parent and Staff Education

Social skills are 24/7 skills. For social skills strategies to be learned and used effectively, other people who work or live with these individuals need to understand the strategies being learned as well. Parents and educators should be regularly apprised on the terms, concepts and strategies being practiced in groups. There are a variety of ways to ensure this happens, such as regular meetings, trainings or emails. Our group parents and teachers receive a monthly email copy of the “Social Gazette”, a social skills advice handout we discuss during group sessions.

Incentives

All twelve students interviewed for this article agreed that the social group is fun. Truly, social groups should be fun! Some students, however, lack the strong intrinsic desire to work on improving social skills. They may believe they can make changes on their own or have difficulty acknowledging their own areas of weakness. Collin states, “I have a difficult time accepting my weaknesses.” Students involved in social skills groups need to develop a positive attitude about participating and this can be aided by incentives. Frank correction, redirection and difficult practice exercises force participants to step out of their comfort zone. Group incentives help ease the social growing pains. Incentives can include snacks, games and other rewards.

Structure

Effective groups have very clear rules and expectations right from the start. The group members should cooperatively brainstorm and decide on group expectations. These should be written and posted for each meeting. The group should also follow a consistent format, with a set agenda, that provides the much-needed structure for activities. Our groups typically follow the same agenda: ten minutes of snack and social time, five minutes of review, ten minutes of discussion, twenty minutes of an activity or game and five more minutes of social time. Nick, a sixth-grader, likes social time because it gives everyone a chance “to talk about whatever you want” and Sarah says it’s a time “to find out what’s going on with other people.”

Curriculum

The areas addressed in social thinking instruction should directly relate to the challenge areas of the participants, as specified in the student’s IEP or gleaned from parents and educators. Many books are now available that provide explicit social thinking strategies and/or group lesson plans for teaching students with ASD. Books by Michelle Garcia Winner are excellent. Learning about social behavior requires more than just learning rote skills. Students need to learn social thinking, to consider how and why others think and feel as they do, before they can apply the proper social behaviors.

Generalization

Learning social skills within the group is just the first step. Students must generalize what they learn to other environments. One way to encourage this is to assign “homework.” Homework (which might carry a different term more palatable to students) may be assigned to parents and staff as well as students. Adults may be tasked to set up situations, prompting appropriate use of strategies, or collect data on how well students are using new strategies. Student assignments might involve practicing specific strategies in certain environments and/or observing others using these skills. Have students use checklists, journals, specific worksheets or self-reporting at the next session.

Data

Social skill goals and objectives included on the IEP may specifically state how progress is to be documented. Often, however, improvement may be slow and depending on how objectives are written, may be difficult to monitor and assess. One effective way to show improvement is to begin with parent and staff rating forms for many aspects of social performance. These rating forms can then be completed again after long-term group instruction, such as school year-end or marking periods. Data can be collected for performance both within the small group setting and within the natural social environment.

One of our students, Collin, succinctly sums up why his group is effective in helping students achieve social success: “it’s an emulation of real social settings with manipulated variables.” A social skills group may be one of the best ways to increase social understanding, promote positive interactions and build self-confidence while addressing the social concerns of students on the autism spectrum. Why make the necessary effort to offer social skills groups? Our group members tell us the best thing is “Friends!” Sean sums it up nicely: “Kids can just be themselves…while still learning more!”

Julie Wilson, M.Ed, is a Autism Educational Specialist with Southwest Regional Rehabilitation Center in Battle Creek, MI. Sign up for Julie's weekly social skills tips via her website: www.socialperspectives.com

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