Emerging research suggests that given the appropriate programming, autistic teens can improve their social skills during adolescence.
Most would agree that junior high and high school years are emotionally challenging for all teens, and, for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the time is often difficult. Deficits in social skills among teens with ASD may result in students being ostracized and bullied by their classmates.
Paradoxically, the new approach developed by researchers at the Koegel Autism Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara hinges on exploiting the unique strengths of teens with ASD – their high intelligence and very specific interests.
Researchers discovered that focusing on these assets allows adolescents to be as capable as anyone else of forging strong friendships. In addition, the research findings demonstrate that the area of the brain that controls such social behavior is not as damaged in adolescents with ASD as was previously believed.
Researchers have reported their findings in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.
“The problem is that their restricted interests can dominate their lives and further push away people they’d like to get to know,” said Robert Koegel, Ph.D., director of the Koegel Autism Center and the study’s lead author.
“They’re so highly focused on that interest, people think they’re weird. But by involving themselves in an activity around the interest, they not only make friends but also become valued members of the group. Their specialized skill becomes a strength.”
In the study, the research team took a creative approach to helping three boys with ASD to interact with their peers. Rather than discourage their sometimes-obsessive interests, the researchers helped set up social clubs around them and invited students who do not have ASD to join.
The clubs provided a venue for the ASD students to display their special interests and abilities, and helped them engage with their peers in a more meaningful way.
Koegel offered the example of a student with ASD who has a keen interest in computer graphics. The team created a graphic design club in which students would design logos for various companies and businesses.
Because most of the students lacked the necessary expertise, they depended on their classmate with ASD to make the venture a success.
“When he was able to interact on a topic in which he was interested, he was able to demonstrate more normal social behavior,” Koegel said. “He not only made friends with his fellow members, he was elected club president.”
According to Koegel, the findings are also significant because they indicate a higher degree of brain functionality than researchers had previously associated with ASD adolescents.
“It has been commonly believed that the part of the brain related to social skills is so damaged that adolescents with ASD are incapable of normal social interaction,” he said. “We demonstrated that not to be the case. Once you can motivate kids to try things, they make dramatic and rapid improvement, which shows the brain is not as damaged as first thought.”
Experts believe the study illuminates the critical time period when children who were diagnosed with ASD reach adolescence and young adulthood.
“This study is so important because it suggests so much optimism,” Koegel said.
“It shows the brain isn’t as damaged as people thought. And it shows that otherwise unhappy individuals can lead more fulfilling lives.”
He added that the research team was pleasantly surprised to see that the students with ASD became highly valued members of their groups, and were given a great deal of dignity and respect.
They also noted that, without any instructions or encouragement from any of the researchers, many school peers enthusiastically joined in these club activities and had a great deal of enjoyment throughout and beyond the time frame of the study.
“In short, this was a lot of fun for everyone,” Koegel said.