5 Handy Tips for Teaching Social Skills for Secondary/Post-Secondary Students with Autism
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5 Handy Tips for Teaching Social Skills for Secondary/Post-Secondary Students with Autism

by Scott Allen, Psy.D., CLE Austin

Social skills training at CLE Austin
The common features among individuals with autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) are deficits in communication skills, behavior, and social functioning. With instruction and intervention, many individuals with ASD are able to overcome their barriers in communication and behavior. However, social challenges are often harder to overcome because individuals “on the spectrum” tend to stay behind the curve. As they get older, the skills seeming to be “second nature” to neurotypical peers become more complex, vague, or abstract. In preschool, it is socially appropriate for kids to engage in parallel play and this may be the extent of friendships at that age. Parallel play is a relatively uncomplicated activity. In college, interactions with others become as complicated as dating or managing multiple layers of friendships. Try to break this down into teachable steps; it is not easy. Many experts agree that the core deficit in ASD is in Theory of Mind, or the ability to view the world through the eyes of others. Many social interventions are geared toward teaching this skill, often innate in others, by helping students “read” the verbal and visual cues in others.

I have been teaching social skills to individuals with autism for over 10 years. These individuals have been diverse in age and background and the settings have been in schools, private practices, and larger organizations like CLE. Although the exact methodology changes according to age, specific challenges, or population, many of the same principles apply.

Here are my Top 5 Tips to keep in mind of when working on social skills with the ASD population.

1. Make sure that you are meeting the individual at his/her skill level.

I have had students approach me and tell me that they want to meet a significant other or have a deep friendship with someone when they are unable to participate in a brief conversation or even greet someone by name. Although it is important to acknowledge the skills that the individual wants to work on, it is also important to factor in the prerequisite skills that are required and to meet them in the middle. When training in social skills, I find it important to use a teach, model, role-play, guided practice, and then real-world sequence. Through this sequence, I can be certain that the skills are not only learned but they are generalized across settings and audience.

2. Keep it interesting and fun.

Social instruction at CLEI am fascinated by how many potential students come to CLE and as soon as they learn that there will be social training in the program, they drop their shoulders and say that this has not been a good experience in the past. Running a skills training group is not the same as running a psychotherapy group. One of our most innovative groups at CLE-Austin is our Tabletop Gaming group where we integrate social skills training into a Dungeons & Dragons style game. Why not? D&D is a great way to teach flexibility, perspective taking, teamwork, planning, and problem solving. Students can learn without feeling like they are learning. We have used board games, video games, movies, television, sports, outdoor activities, restaurants, improv comedy, and many other fun activities to teach real-world social skills. With a little creativity, it can be done.

3. Make sure your training program does not exist in a vacuum.

Teaching social skills out in the communityIt’s very easy when working with students with social challenges to view improvements (and deficits) as vastly bigger than they really are. When I worked with younger kids with autism, I remembered being fascinated when I saw a 4-year old point at an item and then look at his parent. Wow, what an amazing feat!

When I went to the supermarket and saw a 9-month old infant do the same thing, the feat did not seem so amazing. We have many of our social groups in the community for this reason; it’s important that our students not just have the skills to interact with each other, but also with others out in the community. We look at our students through the lens of: “What skills does this young person absolutely need to learn to be able to interact with the outside world and be able to reach happiness as they define it.”

4. Look for teachable moments. They aren’t hard to find.

Find teachable moments for social skillsWhen I see students that are completely frustrated by social situations, I can also see that they are motivated and truly want to learn. When I think about when I’ve learned life’s hardest lessons, it has typically occurred when I have made a mistake or I could not do something on my own.

Most of the time when I see students struggle, I am thankful that they care because it tells me that they have the motivation to learn. One of my favorite instances of such learning was with a student who struggled with establishing even simple relationships with others. When the issue was discussed, we learned that one reason this issue was occurring was because the student had a difficult time remembering names. Upon learning this deficit, this student took it upon himself to learn names through the use of preferences or features of his peers. Student challenges are only “failures” when they are not used as opportunities to learn.

5. Give direct, constructive, and real feedback.

When I worked in schools, I often noticed that teachers or other adults often did not give students feedback about their behavior or communication. When I asked why they refrained from doing so, I would often hear that the issue was due to their disability or that they did not mean to do anything wrong. They were often afraid of coming across as insensitive or hurting the students’ feelings. Students with autism are often black and white thinkers and they often struggle with interpreting subtle cues and “sugarcoated” statements. It is very difficult to have a “teachable moment” if the student is unable to notice that he/she did anything wrong. In our focus groups, staff members frequently give feedback to our students, but we also teach students how to give sensitive but direct feedback to each other.

One of the best things about teaching students at CLE, is that we are able to do so on multiple levels. We work with students individually to teach the individual skills, we have groups where they can practice them with peers, and we have less structured social outings where they can use them in the real world. I have found that students in our program have learned tremendously, and families observe students demonstrating skills and positive behaviors that they have never seen prior to starting the program. When I tell my friends that I work with students with autism-spectrum disorders, I am often told, “You must have a lot of patience.” I tell them, “No, the big reason I work with the population is that I can see positive changes very quickly and they are so invested in self-improvement.”

Newsletter Articles – April 2016

Denise and Chris Cameron

Frequently I find myself reflecting on Autism and how it has formed me into the person I am today. I didn’t choose to walk this journey; but I was indeed selected to raise this beautiful boy of mine. I can see the transformations in myself that are all positive changes.

Each transition of Chris’s life always produced an enormous amount of stress for me. At times, that’s all that would occupy my mind. I often would get very attached to his teachers, to the extent that I would be fearful for him to move on to the next grade level. I never thought the new teacher would understand him or care for him. Always to my amazement, they seemed to be even more exceptional.

Paula Moraine, M.Ed.

CLE recently had an opportunity to sit down with Paula Moraine, M.Ed. Paula is an educational consultant, as well as a tutor, coach, mentor and author. Her first book, Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Function, was recently followed by her new book, Autism and Everyday Executive Function.

Meggie at CLE Monterey

My life with autism has been an interesting and challenging life, but I never imagined that I would be advocating for people and kids in the autism community.

It first started when I was in 8th grade. I was not properly diagnosed until I was 14 years old, and I felt like I needed to tell my classmates about why I acted and learned differently than they did. So I wrote a letter explaining my autism and I decided to read it out loud in front of my class, along with my teacher and school principal. When I first went up, I was a little nervous because I don’t always like talking in front of people, but I got over it fast. All I needed to do was read from my letter, and I did. When I was done, I got an applause. That was my first time telling my personal story of autism, and I thought as I got into high school, I could tell more about the autism community.

Nico at CLE Fort Lauderdale

There’s a common assumption that people with autism are considered introverts, meaning that they aren’t very socially active. I, however, am somewhat of a unicorn, meaning a rare example. I am a highly extroversive young man despite my autism. I am most at ease when I am surrounded by other people who care about me, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this preference has caused more than enough problems for me. It has been brought to my attention that when it comes to making friends, I tend to appear somewhat desperate when I approach people. This usually results in me pushing them away, rather than bringing them closer. As for those who stick around, I realize that some are most likely just being polite and don’t want to hurt my feelings.

The Reason I Jump

Here at the College Living Experience Denver, we have ample experience interacting with students on the autistic spectrum who regularly display non-traditional social behaviors. However, understanding the reasons behind these actions has always been a conundrum.

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