Mastering social skills is generally an ongoing endeavor for kids on the autism spectrum. Just when you master one skill, peers get older, change, and it’s time for an upgrade. How do you know if your child is ready to benefit from learning social skills in a group setting?
In my office, groups promote safe practice opportunities for new skills while encouraging peer support, developing friendships, and providing positive role-models. In order to set your child up for future success, it is important to carefully consider the skills and group dynamic you are looking for. Here are ideas to help guide your quest:
1. What skills does my child need?
Groups are a powerful tool to promote the generalization of the skills your child has worked hard on in therapy. There’s the quote by Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person with autism.” The same concept holds true with groups; it is critically important that you find a group that is working on skills that your child needs. Practicing social scripts with peers and reading the subtleties of social communication are both important skills but they’re also very different skills that not every child on the spectrum will need to practice to the same degree. Be direct and honest about what you’re looking for in a group when you talk to the provider.
2. Which ratio is best?
How independent is your child at applying the skills he/she is working on? Does he/she benefit from direct support (a small group) or is the child able to tolerate a larger group and maintain focus to learn new skills? Often times the ratio can impact the financial cost of the attendance, but if your child struggles in a large setting, it might be a better use of resources to seek out a smaller group.
3. How structured should the group be?
Groups vary greatly in structure. Some groups follow a curriculum and cover a specific topic each week (compliments, taking turns, dating, etc.); while other groups are more client-driven and based on client need (I’m lonely, how do I make more friends?). Both are good options! Structured groups ensure that a wide variety of topics are covered so that skills don’t fall through the cracks. Less structured groups ensure that time is dedicated to relevant topics for your child which means less wasted time on skills your child may already have.
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4. Don’t be afraid to shop around!
Be flexible and open to new learning environments. Generally, younger kids love social groups, and older kids, well, don’t love it as much. It’s important that you and your child give the group a solid try. This often means encouraging your child to stay for more than 10 minutes, even if the new experience is uncomfortable and trying each group out at least a couple of sessions. However, if it doesn’t feel like a good fit, look for a different group or explore different learning options. Each new experience will give you and the child knowledge that will help guide you to the “right fit” – a group that develops your child’s social skills while broadening his/her social comfort zone.
Groups are a powerful tool for learning and using new social skills when you find the right fit. They often provide positive reinforcement of the skills your child works on in therapy and can often be thought of as an “in addition to” and not of an “instead of” when it comes to one on one therapy. Often therapists (psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, etc.) can provide information regarding resources for social skills groups in your area.
If you struggle to find a group offered in your city/town, talk to your providers. Sometimes, asking the right questions will help that group appear (voila!). It’s critical that we do all that we can to prepare our kids for the real world. While every child is different, preparation for and navigation of an ever-changing social environment may be maximized by the reinforcement that a social skills group uniquely provides.
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This article was featured in Issue 84 – The Journey to Good Health and Well-Being