Throwback (2016): Social skills groups—include typical peers or not?

Kasari et al. compared two social skills group interventions for elementary-aged kids with ASD—structured, direct instruction groups comprised only of kids with ASD, and naturalistic groups that included typically developing peers. Which was more effective at building social connections for kids with ASD? The results might surprise you.

Fast facts on the groups:

SKILLS: The direct instruction group

  • All group members had ASD/social challenges
  • Lessons like “Being a Social Detective” and “Dealing with Teasing”
  • Opportunities to practice skills

ENGAGE: The naturalistic group

  • Students with ASD grouped with neurotypical peers
  • Students collaborated to choose activities (e.g., free plan, structured games, storytelling)

How’d they work?

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Post-treatment, ALL students were more engaged with peers on the playground. But the gains made by students in the structured SKILLS groups were significantly larger. What’s more, these students spent significantly less time in isolation during recess as compared to kids in the ENGAGE groups.

So what gave SKILLS the edge?

There are a few possibilities: it could be the group composition (all students with ASD/social challenges), the adult-facilitated instruction, or both. Also, the SKILLS group created a space for students with ASD to meet peers in different grades. Prior research has shown that social skills learned in clinic-based group therapy may not generalize to school; however, the authors noted that facilitating groups like SKILLS in the school setting may give students more confidence to carry over these skills to recess and other social opportunities at school.

An interesting wrinkle: Getting a better understanding of your student’s relationship with his/her teacher could help you determine which social skills group intervention might be the better bet. For children whose teachers rated their relationship as less close or higher in conflict (using the Student Teacher Relationship Scale, available here), the SKILLS groups were more effective in improving the students’ social connections. On the other hand, the ENGAGE groups were more effective for students whose teachers reported higher closeness scores. Curious!

Kasari, C., Dean., M., Kretzmann, M., Shih, W., Orlich, F., Whitney, R., Landa, R., Lord, C., & King, B. (2016). Children with autism spectrum disorder and social skills groups at school: a randomized trial comparing intervention approach and peer composition. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(2), 171–179. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12460.