Group-based behavioral therapy may help children and teens with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop stronger and longer-lasting social skills, according to a new trial of group classes for children with ASD developed at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany.
Not being able to connect socially with other children is one of the most frustrating and persistent difficulties for children and adolescents with ASD, especially among those with higher intelligence, who quickly become aware that they are different.
The objective of the new trial, in which six university hospitals in Germany participated, was to see whether the social responsiveness of children and adolescents with ASD could be improved in a therapist-led group setting.
“We often encounter children and adolescents with ASD in clinical practice who would like to communicate with youngsters of their own age, and at the same time experience every day that they meet with rejection because they are unable to understand many of their classmates’ behavior patterns. And this causes them to despair,” said Professor Christine Freitag, head of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy.
In the framework of group therapy developed at Goethe University, children and adolescents with high functioning ASD were able to learn how to cope better in the social world and also achieve a long-term effect. This was confirmed by clinical trials involving 209 ASD children and teens between the ages of eight and 18 over a three-year period.
Working with her colleague Dr. Hannah Cholemkery, Freitag developed the behavioral group therapy program with instructions and exercises designed to equip ASD children with greater social skills.
Before the start of the program, parents were asked to evaluate 65 behavior patterns of their ASD children by filling out a standardized questionnaire. The questionnaire was repeated at the end of the program as well as three months after the end of the intervention in order to measure stability.
Over the course of three months, ASD children attended group therapy once a week with four to five other same-age children and two therapists. There were also three parent evenings. The results were compared with those of a wait list control group.
The findings reveal a clear improvement in social behavior among children in the group intervention, and their progress was found to be stable three months later. In particular, children with severe symptoms and a higher IQ showed the most improvement.