AUTISM SCIENCE IN THE NEWS Social skills training improves a core symptom of autism spectrum disorders

7 Jan

Experiencing major difficulties in social interaction is one of the two core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Given this centrality of social competence, social skills groups are a commonly used intervention for people with ASD, especial those with average to high functioning.

A meta-analysis of five randomized clinical trials was conducted to assess the effectiveness of social skills groups and training for individuals with ASD.

The subjects in the reviewed studies totaled 196 individuals with ASD aged 6 to 21 years. The range of mean full scale IQ scores fell in the average range (84.8 to 106.9). Treatment groups received social skills training in emotional recognition and regulation, social competence, social problem solving, and social communication. The comparison groups did not partake in social skills training activities.

The social skills intervention, as examined in the meta-analysis, is characterized by participation of between two and six individuals with ASD, usually at least aged six years, led by one to three therapists. The group typically meets once per week for 12+ weeks, with each session lasting 60 to 90 minutes. A social skills group session typically includes a structured lesson on a specific skill, modeling of the skill, role playing with rehearsal/practice of the modeled skill, discussion, and individualized performance feedback. Common topics for the groups vary with respect to the age and functioning level of the group members, but often include emotional recognition and regulation, social competence, social problem solving, and social communication.

The meta-analysis found significant improvements in social competence (for example, saying sorry after hurting someone else’s feelings, meeting with friends regularly, asking permission before using objects belonging to someone else) and in decreased loneliness in the social skills treatment group. No differences were found between treatment and comparison groups in emotional recognition, social communication as related to recognizing idioms, nor in child or parental depression.

Limitations of the study were: the small number of studies (5) and of subjects (196); possible bias due to awareness by group leaders, participants, and parents that they were in the treatment or the comparison group. The authors suggest caution in interpreting the study findings.

Reference: Reichow B, Steiner AM, Volkmar F. (2012) Social skills groups for people aged 6 to 21 with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database System Review. July 11;7:CD008511.


Lirio S Covey – The positive findings described are encouraging since to date no effective treatment for either of the core symptoms of ASD exist. The findings from the meta-analysis warrant further study. Persons with ASD, of all ages, should be encouraged to participate in social, sports, and recreational activities that will promote their engagement in social interactions with and those without autism. In looking towards vocational/occupational and residential settings for their loved one with ASD, families and guardians of persons with ASD should consider the availability of opportunities for frequent interpersonal and social interactions.

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