Target Social Skills in Autism, Asperger's

Article excerpt

BALTIMORE -- Social interventions are especially important for children with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, according to an autism expert.

"For some higher-functioning kids, there's self-awareness of the fact that they have such difficulty having friends," Brian Freedman, Ph.D., said at a meeting on developmental disabilities sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. This self-awareness can have a negative impact on self-esteem and increase loneliness.

Despite the importance of social interventions for children with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, several challenges exist when designing intervention for children on the autism spectrum.

"Because [social skills] is a core deficit, there's a constant need for these kids to learn new skills," said Dr. Freedman, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore.

In addition, when autistic children encounter nuances to rules of social interaction that they've learned, they get stuck and don't know how to apply the skills because they have difficulty generalizing these skills to other contexts.

These children also often have trouble maintaining previous skills that they have learned and they often have comorbid mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that need to be considered when planning interventions.

This means that long-term intervention is often helpful. It might be possible to taper the intervention over time if they have trusted friends they can rely on for help in social situations, but "ultimately, you're looking at extended intervention."

The key ingredients for social skill interventions are to focus on strengths, look for opportunities for generalization of skills, use teachable moments as they happen, teach parents and teachers to be social coaches, use appropriate reinforcement schedules, make the abstract into concrete, and break down skills and practice the segments.

When designing a social skill intervention, first consider what must be taught--pragmatics, emotional skills, social cognition, or problem-solving mapping. Types of interventions include modeling/reinforcement, peer mediation, schedules of a social interaction (what's supposed to happen and when), and scripting/stories. …