Blending social cognitive interventions for children with autism

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If you’re supporting children with autism, odds are your priorities include building social communication and/or self-regulation skills. First and second graders with autism in this study made gains in both areas—and their parents improved their ability to support their kids in them, too! Group therapy combined elements from multiple evidence-based social cognitive interventions (TEAACH and Social Thinking, which now includes Zones of Regulation). And rather than teaching the child a series of discrete social skills (e.g., face communication partner, use eye contact, and nod while communication partner is talking), the idea here is to support children in becoming problem-solvers so they can use social skills across contexts.

Pulling therapy elements from multiple social cognitive interventions made sense for this particular group of kids, because they had average or above average intelligence, were included in the gen ed classroom at least 80% of the time, and read at a first grade level. What’s awesome is that the parents were introduced to the therapy approaches in two-parent-only sessions and then participated in all ten 90-minute intervention sessions. We get that this kind of parent involvement isn’t possible in the schools—maybe not in private practice either—still, it’s important that parents are introduced to the approaches we’re using in therapy, especially if they’re working for their kids.

So, a bit more on the interventions the researchers blended together. The TEAACH approach prioritizes structuring the environment and activities, including visual supports, and incorporating the participants’ unique interests. The Social Thinking umbrella includes a number of frameworks and teaching strategies; in this study, the Social Thinking side of the intervention included vocabulary from We Thinkers! Volume 1, like expected/unexpected behaviors and whole body listening, as well as Zones of Regulation strategies.

Want to look closely at the session activities and content? Table 2 has you covered. Also, we recommend checking out Table 3 for definitions of the strategies—some of which may be familiar to you and others that might be new—like visual countdowns, thinking with your eyes, and progressive relaxation. The authors in this study show us that two interventions may be better than one, particularly when we’re picking and choosing parts that play up students’ strengths and address their specific weaknesses. 

Nowell, S. W., Watson, L. R., Boyd, B., Klinger, L. G. (2019). Efficacy study of a social communication and self-regulation intervention for school-age children with autism spectrum disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi: 10.1044/2019_LSHSS-18-0093.