As a professional working with children on the autism spectrum since 2003, I have always been astounded by the impact that social deficits and poor friendship quality has on youths with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). As children enter adolescence, social communication becomes increasingly complex. Many parents that I have worked with in the past were happy with their child’s progress in areas such as academics, behavior management and receptive and expressive language. Despite these wonderful gains, parents remained concerned about their child’s ability to function in the social world due to lingering social deficits. Some specific social deficits that may impact individuals with ASD include: poor social communication, impaired social cognition and the lack of understanding of social cues. These deficits commonly result in peer rejection, poor social support and isolation; consequently, adolescents with ASD report higher levels of loneliness and poor quality of friendships than same aged typically developing peers. Not surprisingly, social skills training has become an increasingly popular method for helping adolescents with ASD adapt to their social environment.
Over the years there have been many studies on this subject, but there remain significant gaps in the research, such as few evidence-based interventions that were specifically aimed at improving the friendships of adolescents with ASD. Most of the relevant studies have not been formally tested in their efficacy in improving social competence or the development of close friendships, nor do they examine the long-term treatment gains after intervention has ended. Much of the literature on social skills training with children and adolescents with ASD focused on the younger population and children who were severly impacted. There was consequently a gap in the treatment intervention research among adolescents that are less cognitively impaired, such as teens with high-functioning autism, Asperger’s disorder or PDD-NOS. Few research studies have examined improvement in social competence or the development of close friendships beyond the treatment setting. There was limited examination of the trajectory of improvement in social competency over time and no research into a parent assisted model of social skills instruction.
As a certified UCLA PEERS (Program for the Evaluation and Enrichment of relational Skills) Program instructor, I am excited when research pertaining to the efficacy of the program is released to the public. The study reviewed here is entitled “Evidence-Based Social Skills Training for Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The UCLA PEERS Program”, conducted by Elizabeth A. Laugeson, Fred Frankel, Alexander Gantman, Ashley R. Dillon, and Catherine Mogil. The PEERS Program is a parent assisted social skills group intervention for high-functioning adolescents with ASD. The present study focused on the durability of treatment gains after a 14 week follow up period. The findings of the current study are as follows: Teens completing the PEERS Program have significantly improved their social skills knowledge, social responsiveness, and overall social skills in the areas of social communication, social cognition, social awareness, social motivation, assertion, cooperation and responsibility while decreasing autistic mannerisms and increasing the frequency of peer interactions. Many of the improvements were maintained at the 14-week follow up assessment while some improved even further.
These results are very exciting for anyone who is interested in the development of social skills for adolescents with ASD. Improving social skills among adolescents with ASD is particularly important due to the impact social skills have on social functioning. It has been reported that having one or two close friends positively impacts later adjustment and buffers the impact of stressful, life events while improving self-esteem and decreasing anxious and depressive symptomology.
Although the current study was successful in improving and maintaining overall social skills and social responsiveness in teens with high functioning ASD, there are limitations to the study. Some of the limitations are as follows: Each study participant came into the study with a previous diagnosis of an ASD from a reliable mental health professional but there was no way (due to financial constraints) to corroborate the diagnosis. The study used parent rating scales that are susceptible to bias, and the generalizability of the treatment gains is questionable due to small sample size.
Evidence-Based Social Skills Training for Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The UCLA PEERS Program by Elizabeth A. Laugeson, Fred Frankel, Alexander Gantman, Ashley R. Dillon, and Catherine Mogil. Published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Volume 42, Number 6 (2012).