Sunday, June 14, 2020

Teaching Social Skills to Students with Autism

Impairment in social communication and interaction is a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Social skills deficits include difficulties with initiating interactions, maintaining reciprocity, taking another person’s perspective, and inferring the interests of others.  Unfortunately, many autistic children do not receive consistent and intensive social skills programming in school. This is problematic, especially considering social impairments may result in negative outcomes, such as poor academic achievement, social failure, isolation, and peer rejection, which often leads to co-occurring (comorbid) anxiety and depression. 

Because social skills are critical to successful social, emotional, and cognitive development and long-term outcomes, best practice indicates that social skills instruction should be an integral component of educational programming for all children with autism. Research evidence suggests that when appropriately planned and systematically delivered, social skills instruction has the potential to produce positive effects in the social interactions of children with ASD. Both the National Professional Development Center on Autism (NPDC) and the National Autism Center (NAC) have identified social skills training/instruction as an evidence-based intervention and practice. Social skills training is typically offered as small-group instruction with a shared goal or outcome of learned social skills in which participants can learn, practice, and receive feedback. These interventions seek to build social interaction skills in children and adolescents with ASD by targeting basic responses (e.g., eye contact, name response) to complex social skills (e.g., how to initiate or maintain a conversation). 

Most often, schools are expected to assume the responsibility of delivering social skills training programs to children with social skills deficits, because these impairments significantly interfere with social relationships and have an adverse effect on academic performance. Although equipped to teach social skills, implementing social skills programming can be challenging for school personnel (teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers), who often have limited time and resources. Recent meta-analysis research suggests that the effectiveness of social skills training can be enhanced by increasing the quantity (or intensity) of social skills interventions, providing instruction in the child’s natural setting, matching the intervention strategy with the type of skill deficit, and ensuring treatment integrity (fidelity). In order for students to learn, practice, and maintain expected social behavior, educators must teach social skills within the context of the various school settings that students encounter each day (i.e., classroom, special subject areas such as art and music, cafeteria, and playground). 
The following are guidelines are recommended when developing a social skills intervention strategy:
  • Avoid a "one size fits all" approach and adapt the intervention to meet the needs of the individual or particular group. 
  • Employ primarily positive strategies and focus on facilitating the desirable social behavior as well as eliminating the undesirable behavior. 
  • Emphasize the learning, performance, generalization, and maintenance of appropriate social behaviors through modeling, coaching, and role-playing
  • Provide social skills training and practice opportunities in a number of settings with different individuals in order to encourage students to generalize new skills to multiple, real life situations. 
  • Use assessment strategies, including functional assessments of behavior, to identify 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 "normal" or typical environments to address the naturally occurring causes and consequences. 
  • Include parents and caregivers as significant participants in developing and selecting interventions (they can help reinforce the skills taught at school to further promote generalization across settings).
The type of skill deficit (performance deficit versus skill deficit) should also be considered when developing a social skills intervention plan. A performance deficit refers to a skill or behavior that is present but not demonstrated or performed, whereas a skill acquisition deficit refers to the absence of a particular skill or behavior. School professionals should make an intensive effort to systematically match the intervention strategy to the type of skill deficit exhibited by the child. For instance, if the child lacks the skills necessary to join in an interaction with peers, an intervention strategy should be selected that promotes skill acquisition. In contrast, if the child has the skills to join in an activity but regularly fails to do so; a strategy should be selected that enhances the performance of the existing skill.
Social relationship skills are critical to successful social, emotional, and cognitive development and to long-term outcomes for students. Thus, systematic social skills instruction should be considered a critical component of treatment for children with autism. Teaching social skills can have both preventive and remedial effects that can help reduce the risk for negative outcomes not only for children on the autism spectrum, but for all children. 

Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTHe 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. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

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