The majority of my clients live within the realm of the Autism spectrum and more specifically Asperger’s as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 4th Edition.
Autism captured my interest in graduate school while at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. In the early 90s, UNC was one of the major centers of the Autism universe. I was exposed to many professors who specialized in early childhood development and who were also involved in mainstreaming autistic kids into regular classrooms.
I found these children’s obsessive interests such as Legos, Dungeons & Dragons, history, and trains endearing and familiar.
Upon entering private practice, I consistently ran into preteen kids who were bullied or excluded due to being perceived as “different.” Many of these kids had similar characteristics including having a very specialized and specific interest, poorly developed social skills, and above average intelligence.
In bringing children together with similar interests who had been excluded from the social mainstream, I found positive outcomes. When these “spectrum” kids were in groups of like-minded kids, they no longer felt different or excluded, and their anxiety was reduced while self-worth improved.
In group therapy, these kids found their peers and social support. In experiencing a social connection and losing a sense of loneliness even temporarily, my clients improved across a number of domains including anxiety, depression, and defiance. The one thing all of these clients had in common was Asperger’s.
My greatest training in serving the spectrum is actually understanding geek culture.
I believe that working with an Asperger’s population is more about understanding and embracing their culture, so they feel validated and know someone genuinely understands and values them. I have found that providing an environment in which they are celebrated and included is more than 70% of the battle in improving the quality of their lives and building success.
Many families contact me asking for support for their kids because they have not found someone in their town who serves these kids effectively. Given that social skills groups are the primary, successful intervention, I felt it important to share one way of doing a social skills group.
The purpose of my social skills groups is to help all of my Aspies find friendship. Underlying all of our sessions is the theme of becoming connected beyond special interests and to find lifelong friends.
The following is one example of a social skills curriculum you may be able to implement in your own community, especially in areas where such services are not found.
A Sample Social Skills Group Curriculum
1. High and low of the week (15-20 minutes) – Problem solve one “low”.
2. Group Lesson (20 minutes)
3. A fun activity or deeper conversation time.
Session 1: Psychoeducation
- Parents get to know each other and exchange contact information
- What is Asperger’s?
- Agenda and discussion of future groups and intro to parent facilitator
- What are specific goals and concerns for this group of parents?
Session 2: Fight or Flight Night
- Introduction to the neurobiology of the fight, flight, or freeze response.
- Creation of a list of relaxation strategies that work best for each client.
- The actual practice of relaxation training and discussion of situations where such strategies could be used best.
Session 3: Bully Night
- Introduction to bullying and the reasons behind such behavior.
- Understanding power and control as well is how bullies identify their targets. We also discuss safe and unsafe locations in schools.
- Role-play is a big component of the session and we practice responding to bullies and understanding when to seek help.
Session 4: Goal Setting
- Many kids struggle with how to set goals and tend to struggle with knowing what goals are important and what goals are not. This session helps them understand how to target goals in an effective manner.
- In this session, we imagine a future self and the steps needed to achieve that future. The steps often lead back to the basics including cleaning rooms, finishing homework on time, and doing what they need to do before they do what they want to do.
Session 5: Conversation Skills
- By this point in the group, my clients are typically having their first play dates. This session is all about how to get to know another person. I call it becoming “a human detective.”
- We role-play and practice open-ended questions versus closed-ended questions working specifically on getting one another to talk about themselves as well as engaging in active listening.
Session 6: Etiquette Night
- Etiquette night, otherwise known as pizza night, is one of my favorite evenings. This is the night in which I challenge kids to address their table manners.
- During the week prior we discuss food allergies as well as expectations for pizza night. While I do discuss manners and place settings, my emphasis is on chewing with their mouths closed, not talking with their mouths full, etc.
- During the night we play a good manners behavior game which makes manners fun. Group accountability is a big component of tonight’s session.
Session 7: Game Night
- Game night is exactly what it sounds like. Yes, video games! The point of tonight is to further our connections, build friendship, and learn to deal with frustration while practicing strategies learned throughout our groups.
- The cornerstone of tonight’s group is called “controllers down.” Kids learn to tolerate frustration and set video game controllers down when told to, without question or complaint.
- We discuss the role of video games, frustration tolerance, and how to use gaming for good and friendship rather than an obsessive escape from reality or frustration.
Session 8: Group Choice
- During group, themes often arise such as bullying issues, family problems, or worries about girls or friends at school. This session allows us to go deeper into one of the specific topics that are tailored to this group. We use active listening, open-ended questions, group problem solving, as well as learning to be a human detective and friend. This can be a very powerful group experience.
Session 9: Wrap-up
- During our final session, we revisit our topics and provide words of encouragement and affirmation. We also revisit themes from our sessions together, and I emphasize how to maintain connection away from the group and how to share our experiences together with family.