Severe impairment in social reciprocity is the core, underlying feature of ASD. Socialization deficits are a major source of impairment, regardless of cognitive or language ability and do not decrease with development. In fact, distress often increases as children approach adolescence and the social milieu becomes more complex. Evidence accumulating in the empirical literature indicates that in general, social skills interventions are likely to be appropriate for some children and youth with high-functioning autism. Commonly used approaches include individual and group social skills training, providing experiences with typically developing peers, and peer-mediated social skills interventions, all targeting the core social and communication domains. Child-specific social skills interventions frequently include (a) general instruction to increase knowledge and develop social problem solving skills, (b) differential reinforcement to improve social responding,(c) structured social skills training programs, (d) adult-mediated prompting, modeling, and reinforcement, and (e) various behavior management techniques such as self-monitoring.
A study appearing in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders adds to research database suggesting that social interactive training is an effective and promising technique for promoting communication and social skills in youth with autism. The study examined the efficacy and durability of the UCLA PEERS Program, a parent-assisted 14-week social skills group intervention for more capable adolescents on the autism spectrum. In a series of 90-minute weekly sessions the students were taught to interact in real-world social situations through role playing and homework assignments. The teens’ parents also attended sessions to learn how to appropriately coach their kids at home. Results indicated that teens receiving PEERS significantly improved their social skills knowledge, social responsiveness, and overall social skills in the areas of social communication, social cognition, social awareness, social motivation, assertion, cooperation, and responsibility, while decreasing autistic mannerisms and increasing the frequency of peer interactions. Independent teacher ratings revealed significant improvement in social skills and assertion from pre-test to follow-up assessment. Examination of the strength of improvement indicated maintenance of gains in nearly all domains with additional treatment gains at a 14-week follow-up assessment. “This is exciting news,” commented Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles who led the study. “It shows that teens with autism can learn social skills and that the tools stick even after the program is over, improving their quality of life and helping them to develop meaningful relationships and to feel more comfortable within their social world.”
Laugeson, E. A., Frankel, F., Gantman, A., Dillon, A. R., & Mogil, C. (2012). Evidence-based social skills training for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: The UCLA PEERS Program. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 1025-1036. DOI:10.1007/s10803-011-1339-1
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. His most recent book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools, (2nd Edition).