Social groups have great intentions: Our kids don't always shine in interactions with peers, so let's help them improve. Well, like a lot of things related to autism, it's not always straightforward how to facilitate that improvement. How many of you have enrolled your child in a social group, heard from the facilitator that she did beautifully, but then not seen any changes in her social life? Or you ran a group at school and saw exciting gains but then never observed the skills applied outside of the therapy room? Here we'll cover a few common reasons why success in social groups can be limited.
1. Kids already know the answers
Most of our kids have been through countless hours of therapy. They know the right answers. You should say Excuse me if you bump into someone, and if a friend is frowning, it probably means she's sad. So what's the issue here? Many social groups rely primarily on explicit instruction of theoretical information, a relative strength for a lot of kids with ASD. If kids already know the answers, isn't the material we're teaching them redundant? The answer is yes. Then why aren't the kids using what they know? Because they haven't had enough practice. Our social groups at Open Door Autism Project are centered on facilitating natural interactions between peers to build confidence and independence in social interactions. The more success they have with us, the better positioned they are to apply those skills on the playground. In other words, we provide a place where kids can be emotionally regulated, construct a shared activity to pull kids together, and then we do our best to SHUT UP so the kids can draw from cues in their environment and each other to have fun, successful social interactions.
2. The kids aren't developmentally matched
We don't have to tell you: If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. Kids can't simply be grouped for social interactions by diagnosis, or age for that matter. They must be thoughtfully matched according to their developmental levels. What's that mean? It means grouping kids who are communicating conversationally with other kids who are communicating conversationally, and grouping kids who are just starting to use words with other kids who are in the same boat. This allows the facilitator to spend less energy on differentiated instruction and more energy on facilitating emotional regulation. It also sets kids up to experience a balance of challenge and competence within social interactions. What's more, they're more likely to find other kids who enjoy the same kinds of hobbies and interests they do. Win-win!
3. The adults do the thinking
In The Learning Style Profile for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (2012), Dr. Patrick J. Rydell asks the question, "Who is doing the thinking?" It's a fantastically simple but profound query. We adults have a tendency to talk too much and "help" our kids too much. In the therapy room and beyond, what this can often lead to is prompt dependence. In a social group, adult prompting can create inorganic, contrived interactions that aren't easily generalized beyond group. For example, a therapist or facilitator might say, "Ben, tell Madison about your Thanksgiving," at which point Ben shares a quick story about his mom's gross cranberry sauce. When Madison responds with, "Cool," the conversation ends...until the adult then says, "Madison, you could tell Ben what your favorite food at Thanksgiving was." Does this interaction teach Ben how to independently initiate or share his personal experiences with his friends? Does it teach Madison how to maintain conversations by making contingent comments or asking follow-up questions? Does it teach either one of them about what the other person might be thinking based on their own words and actions? That's a big, fat nope. Instead, it teaches kids to look to an adult for the answer when they're feeling unsure of themselves. And we wonder why social groups don't work...
This post is by no means comprehensive in nature. These are just a few of the most frequent pitfalls of social groups. Of course there are many talented social group facilitators who are already aware of these issues and are able to avoid them, but if you've been stymied by any of these stumbling blocks we'd love to talk. Enrollment for our social groups is rolling, so give us a call. We're also available for trainings, speaking engagements, and consultations. We look forward to hearing from you!
Sarah Treharne MA, CCC-SLP