Teaching friendship and life skills to youth with autism spectrum disorders

Photo of autistic teen © UC Regents
The M.I.N.D. Institute social skills program helps teens with autism spectrum disorders learn what comes easily to others — how to form relationships with peers.

About a dozen teens with social-communication disorders sit in a tight circle, cradled in couches and chairs in a conference room at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute. They listen intently as Marjorie Solomon, the leader of the institute’s social skills training program, guides them in a discussion of what it means to have and be a friend.

“What makes you trust another person?” Solomon asks. “Do you make friends easily?” … “Do you pick friends who are similar to you?” she asks.

The answers spill out, sometimes freely, sometimes with more coaxing.

“I trust other people when I know they can keep a secret,” one participant volunteers. “Someone who will help me out in a jam,” another says. “Someone  who will stick by me over time,” offers another.

For these young people, the answers to such questions don’t come easily. They are diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Asperger syndrome and other neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication and forming social relationships. Solomon’s program is intended to help them bridge these gaps. Her work grew from a seed planted while she was a postdoctoral student and M.I.N.D. Institute scholar, between 2000 and 2003.

Founded on research

In a paper published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2004, Solomon and two coauthors reported that it’s possible to teach facial expression recognition and problem-solving skills to high-functioning children with autism in a group setting.

“It is very difficult to measure social skills improvement in a real-world way. It was gratifying that we documented small gains in face processing and problem solving, but we realized this didn’t capture all the positive results parents and group leaders were observing,” Solomon said in an interview recently. “Improved self-esteem, social self-confidence and social motivation also seemed to result from the experience of being in a group, and we believe that this may have a longer term positive impact on social development than training discrete skills.”

Photo of Dr. Solomon © UC Regents"Improved self-esteem, social self-confidence and social motivation also seemed to result from the experience of being in a group..."
— Marjorie Solomon

In a subsequent study funded by Children’s Miracle Network at UC Davis, the research team also was able to preliminarily assess the contributions of a more structured parent training intervention known as Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). This study found that PCIT produced significant reductions in children’s problem behavior as reported by their parents, and significant improvements in the quality of the parent-child relationship.

The M.I.N.D. Institute social skills program now offers 30 weekly meetings that include groups for teens and younger children. There is a 50-family waiting list. To date, more than 100 children and adolescents have “graduated” from the program, and services have also been provided for approximately 40 of their siblings and 150 of their parents.

The groundwork for later success

Ultimately, Solomon hopes to help these young people learn what comes naturally to most typically developing children – forming relationships with peers, thereby laying the critical groundwork for later success in higher education, employment and, ultimately, life as independent adults.

“College is usually more predictable and structured than the workplace and emphasizes things that high-functioning people with autism spectrum disorders are good at, such as reading, memorization, persistence and a knack for technical topics,” Solomon said. “Young people with autism spectrum disorders also come to college with lots of experience being students.

Advancing toward a cure

M.I.N.D. Institute ©2009 UC RegentsThe UC Davis M.I.N.D. (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute is an international, multidisciplinary research organization committed to excellence, collaboration and hope, striving to understand the causes and develop better treatments and, ultimately, cures for neurodevelopmental disorders.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, families, scientists, physicians and educators are working together to unlock the mysteries of the mind.

For more information, visit www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute.

“On the other hand, success in most jobs depends on the ability to participate in teams and to understand complex social interactions with co-workers,” Solomon noted. “Workers also are expected to learn things from experience on the job and then to generalize them to other similar situations. These things can be very difficult for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.”

A family approach

But for now, what does learning the skills to be successful in adulthood look like? It looks like game-time with the social skills group – throwing a football around on the M.I.N.D. Institute’s grounds, playing a game of Jenga®, discussing what real friendship is like or completing a homework assignment on walking in another person’s shoes.

It also looks like a parent group, where mothers and fathers sit around a large conference table, discussing what their children are learning, along with the topic of stress and anxiety, which they have identified as big problems for their children. And, down the hall, the siblings of the children with autism have their own group to hang out and bond with through a multitude of supervised activities.

“While most of my days now are spent engaged in neuroscience research, I greatly look forward to the time I spend in the social skills program where I have the chance to really get to know children and families,” Solomon said. “I have been fortunate to watch many of our members grow up. The successes they have achieved are impressive. This inspires my research and reminds me each day of the importance of the clinical work we are doing.”