Sunday, June 14, 2020

Teaching Social Skills to Children 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, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered 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 best-selling 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).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Mental Health Crisis for Autistic Teens and Young Adults


The Crisis in Mental Health Services

The increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions among children over the past decade indicates that a correspondingly large number of youth will be transitioning to adulthood in the coming years. It is estimated that more than 50,000 adolescents with autism will turn 18 years old this year in the U.S. As these numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to address the mental health issues faced by many teens and young adults on the autism spectrum.
Although we know that children with autism grow up to be adults with autism, there are fewer mental health services available for adults on the spectrum, particularly for individuals who are not intellectually challenged. A review in the open access journal, Autism Research and Treatment, highlights the service needs and the corresponding gaps in care for this population. The authors posit that the mental health system is in crisis and that although the rates of mental health issues for adults on the spectrum is high, accessing services to address these symptoms remains difficult. Poor recognition tends to occur for a number of different reasons, including restrictive intake criteria, misdiagnosis, limited knowledge or awareness of autism spectrum conditions, clinicians who lack confidence or experience in caring for this group of adults, and the belief that other service providers will provide this care. Consequently, many autistic adolescents and adults, because of their diagnosis, are excluded from community mental health services, leaving them grossly underserved.
Mental Health Issues
Comorbid (co-occurring) psychiatric disorders are well documented in individuals with autism across the lifespan. Research suggests that a very high proportion of autistic adults and teens present with co-occurring (comorbid) psychiatric conditions, particularly depression and anxiety. For example, recent studies examining psychiatric comorbidity in young adults with autism spectrum conditions found that 70% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, 50% had suffered from recurrent depressive episodes, and 50% met criteria for an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, it appears that co-occurring psychiatric disorders and even the diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition itself often go unrecognized among more capable adolescents and adults on the spectrum seeking psychological or psychiatric care. Many youth and young adults report significant difficulties accessing healthcare services, particularly comprehensive health services. Part of the reason for this difficulty may stem from service providers feeling ill equipped to work with individuals with autism, particularly individuals with co-occurring mental health issues. As a result, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum conditions have access to significantly fewer programs than adolescents and adults with other types of developmental disabilities. Not surprisingly then, a consistent theme for parents of individuals with autism is the fear that their child will fall through the cracks when transitioning from child to adult services. Similar concerns have been voiced by autistic individuals themselves, who describe how their needs are infrequently recognized and the programs and services available are not designed for people with autism spectrum conditions in mind.
Implications
Adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum represent a complex and underserved population. Of the studies completed to date, findings suggest that this group of adolescents and adults faces a multitude of psychiatric and psychosocial issues, alongside significant challenges in accessing services. Social skills deficits for autistic individuals persist into adulthood, and adults appear to be at an increased risk for developing depression and anxiety. Despite this, very few studies have examined treatment approaches and interventions (pharmacological and psychosocial) for adolescents and adults with autism. While evidence is beginning to emerge for interventions, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), and social skills training (SST), further large-scale studies comparing the effectiveness of CBT or MBT versus other treatment options (e.g., medication, counseling, etc.) are required. Likewise, there is an immediate need for mental health clinicians who are trained to apply these techniques. In developing interventions, programs must also consider what adolescents and adults want. For example, adolescents and adults on the spectrum may be more interested in interventions which focus on vocational opportunities than interventions targeting social skills. Moreover, both individuals and their family must be viewed as valuable contributors and fully involved in this process. Lastly, researchers must look at issues of service cost and efficiency when evaluating the impact of interventions.
Recommendations
1. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, over the course of a year, approximately 20% of children and adolescents in the U.S. experience signs and symptoms of a mental health problem. Unfortunately, most children and youth who are in need of mental health services do not actually receive them. Psychological services should be expanded in schools to include a major focus on the delivery of mental health services to all students. 
2. Developmental disability agencies or agencies supporting individuals with autism spectrum conditions must partner with community mental health agencies to help train, mentor, and build capacity to care for this group across the lifespan. It is important to note that many clinicians working within community mental health agencies already have the skills to effectively deliver this care, but programs either preclude their ability to do so or they lack the confidence to work with this population.
2. There is a critical need for community mental health agencies to review their exclusion criteria to include persons with autism spectrum conditions. For example, agencies providing care for persons with mood or anxiety disorders should not exclude individuals on the basis of a diagnosis of autism. Community mental health agencies have the resources and expertise in mental health, along with the programs to deliver services for individuals with mental health issues (e.g., vocational programs, counseling, and therapies), but will need guidance from developmental disability agencies to successfully adapt these programs for adults on the autism spectrum.
3. Developmental disability agencies must reevaluate their inclusion criteria to include persons with autism spectrum conditions, regardless of IQ, and across the lifespan. Organizations must work together, combining expertise in autism from developmental disability agencies with knowledge and resources from community mental health agencies.
4. There is a need to study and identify programs and supports that are most effective in both school and community settings. This will require a full continuum of mental health services including counseling, vocational training, supported employment, inpatient services, and outpatient services. It will also require a network of experienced clinicians and community partners. Many of these efforts are already underway in pediatric settings; however, these same efforts are required in adolescent and adult mental health services.
5. Finally, there is a need to prepare and equip older youth with autism spectrum conditions for the transition to adult services.
Johanna K. Lake, J. K., Perry, A., & Lunsky, Y. (2014). Mental Health Services for Individuals with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research and Treatment, Volume 2014, Article ID 502420. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/502420
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered 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 best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in SchoolsHis latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

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