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A Programmatic Description of a Social Skills Group for Young Children with Autism

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Justin B. Leaf, Wesley H. Dotson, Misty L. Oppenheim-Leaf, James A. Sherman and Jan B. Sheldon. (2014). A Programmatic Description of a Social Skills Group for Young Children With Autism. A Programmatic Description of a Social Skills Group for Young Children With Autism, Vol 32, Issue 2, DOI: 10.1177/02711214z11405855, 2012.


Hello. Today’s video is about an article by Justin Leaf and colleagues published in 2011 entitled A Programmatic Description of a Social Skills Group for Young Children with Autism. The article describes a social skills group conducted at the Autism Partnership office in California.

Groups are often used to teach social skills to individuals with ASD. Research regarding the effectiveness of the groups is incomplete, and results of effectiveness studies are mixed. It is important to sort out these groups’ effectiveness because they potentially have substantial benefits. For example, they may be uniquely efficient due to the opportunity to learn from observing and practicing with other children. Leaf and colleagues provide a description and preliminary data for such a program.

The group itself had three goals. One was, naturally, to provide free social skills training to individuals with ASD. The second was to have a setting where applied research could be conducted. Third was to have a setting where undergraduates could learn to implement social skills programming, among other duties of a behavior therapist, and be involved in research.

Five children with ASD and some who were typically developing were included in the group. To be included, a child had to speak in full sentences, answer and ask questions; be toilet trained; or have a recent history of severe self-injury, aggression, or disruptive behavior; and the children needed to be between three and seven years of age, which is quite young compared to participants of similar studies. To find participants with ASD, the researchers canvased relevant local organizations, and typically developing participants were solicited from colleagues and parents of the children with ASD. Prospective parents were interviewed, and their child was observed for 30 minutes before being accepted into the study.

The group met approximately 120 times over the course of 16 months, with each meeting lasting 2 hours. Months of participation for the target children ranged from 16 to 10 months with a mean of 13 months. A group of this duration is unusual. The extended time likely helped with providing more opportunities to develop positive relationships with one another and have their social interactions be more varied and complex. At completion of the study, the children exchanged gifts on holidays, invited others to parties, and had playdates with one another.

There were 6 activities during each group meeting. The first of which was a 15-minute free-play activity. During this time, they could use some dramatic play items or structured game. Skills were assessed at this time. After the free play, there was a 25-minute circle time group. Social skills were taught using the teaching interaction procedure during this group. After circle time, the group was split into two smaller groups. Individualized instruction was provided to teach social skills during the smaller group. Then the groups re-combined for another circle time like the previous one. The fifth activity was a 15-minute structured indoor game or unstructured outdoor activities. The sixth and final activity was a concluding large-group circle time. This circle addressed school readiness, involved a discussion of the day’s events, and was an opportunity for reinforcement.

The skills selected to teach were identified through parent interviews, the Social Skills Rating Scale Assessment, schoolteacher requests, and observation. Eight of the 16 skills were included into the study. The other identified skills were taught separately. The skills included into the study were showing appreciation, giving compliments, changing a game when a friend is bored, making empathic statements, interrupting appropriately, recognizing the emotions behind different facial expressions, playing games, and conditioned reinforcement.

The researchers were responsible for selecting the skills, conducting research, teaching children, interacting with parents, training social skills teachers, promotion of the group, recruitment of children, and managing problematic behavior. The thirteen undergraduate social skills teachers were responsible for teaching, shadowing, setting up the group, recording and analyzing data, and assisting with skill selection. The group itself was run by four teachers (researchers and/or undergrads).

The undergraduates were students who excelled in ABA classes. Training before each semester involved multiple elements. The first two days were didactic, teaching about autism, teaching procedures, and the participants themselves. The undergrads were also taught about their roles and how to follow through with those roles. After that, there were two to four days of demonstration and role-play. As the undergrads demonstrated success, the role-play scenarios they were given became more challenging. On going training and supervision continued throughout the 16 months of the group.

Several teaching strategies were used during the social group including discrete trial teaching and incidental teaching; however, the strategies that were more unique to this study were teaching interactions and cool v not cool. The teaching interaction procedure was the primary strategy used during the study. This strategy is like behavior skills training and was used during large-group instruction. The procedure involves six steps: labeling and describing the behavior, rationale building, discrimination training, role playing, feedback, and reinforcement.

The cool vs not cool procedure was used during small-group instruction. Cool/Not Cool is a discrimination program that teaches students to identify which social behaviors are appropriate and which are inappropriate. In vivo demonstrations would take place and the children would need to make a correct discrimination. Occasionally, there would be role plays.

A reinforcement system was implemented to increase appropriate social behavior. To reduce interference from the reinforcement system, a token economy was used. Tokens were received for correct answers and appropriate behavior. Tokens could be exchanged at the end of each group for a preferred item. More highly preferred items cost more tokens. Tokens could be retained to carry over to the end of the next group, if a child chose to do so.

Two studies were conducted during the group. One demonstrated the effectiveness of the teaching interaction procedure to teach social skills in a group format. The second study evaluated the effects of the no-no prompting procedure. The results indicated that the prompt was effective in teaching the participants new skills directly and through observation learn the skills taught to others. There were several other skills that were taught outside of any experimental designs. These skills were evaluated during role play opportunities and generalization probes. Examples of skills taught during the group include greetings, cheering for a friend, and showing off artwork to others.

Parents were uniformly positive regarding the outcomes of the group for their children. Several giving feedback that indicated their children have been much more successful socially since completing the group.

There were many challenges in conducting the group. One such challenge was in finding children who were compatible for the group and likely to benefit. Personalities of the peers, balancing the skill of the teachers and behavior needs of the children, and having participants with the right pre-requisite skills. Another challenge involved funding. This group was funded with a small grant; however, if the group were to be replicated, a fee may need to be charged in order to pay for the teaching materials. It was difficult to record generalization data because schools tend to not want data recorded there and peers were unable, for one reason or another, to come over to the participants’ home. Lastly, some of the children engaged in severely disruptive behavior, such as disrobing. Due to the limited skills of the teachers, a tremendous amount of reinforcement was used to limit the children’s attempts to engage in the behavior.

Ultimately, this group was effective in teaching social skills to the participants, as they developed positive relationships with the other group members, much to the satisfaction of their parents. Group such as this one has the advantage of using peers in order to increase the likelihood of generalization, and having the setting more closely resemble a natural school environment promoting integration of the child. They also provide an opportunity for observational learning. Lastly, the groups allow clinicians to teach skills in an efficient and cost-effective way. Clinicians should capitalize on opportunities to use these procedures.

I hope this summary was useful for you. Please have a look at some of our other videos in this section if you are curious about some other important articles about ASD or ABA.

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