People with autism often experience difficulties with social skills and social communication, which can have negative consequences for their overall quality of life. To help them navigate the social world, they can receive specific social skills training. This type of training is commonly used with children and adolescents, but few studies have examined whether it works for adults.
Why did we do this study?
There are lots of different ways that autistic adults can be supported. Some people suggest that targeted learning of social skills may be helpful, but it is not clear whether this is definitely the case, or whether reported improvements relate more to non-specific aspects of support. We conducted this study to understand whether social skills training was more effective than non-specific support (not targeted towards social skills) to help autistic adults.
What did we do?
19 autistic adults took part in the study, and enrolled in a 16-week-long training group program. Half the participants joined a specific social skills training group based around teaching social skills techniques, with a focus initially on fundamental skills, followed by a period to practice applying these skills to various social situations. The other half joined a non-specific social interaction group designed to act as a comparison group. This group was specifically designed to not focus on teaching social skills but rather on encouraging positive social interaction between group members. The purpose of the second group was to find out whether any improvements seen in the first group related to the specific teaching of social skills or whether they were due to non-specific improvements resulting from being in a group situation or research study. The social skills and quality of life of the participants were measured just before the beginning and just after the end of the training program, to keep track of any real-life effects of the training.
What did we find?
We found that both groups were as beneficial for real life social situations, which means that a non-targetted social interaction group can be as beneficial as a social skill training group program. There was also some signs in our study that participants who were in the social interaction group rated their quality of life as more improved than the social skills group at the end of the study. However, our group of participants was rather small, so our findings need to be reproduced with more people.
You can see a summary of the manual used for the social skills intervention here. The results were published in a peer-reviewed journal:
Ashman, R., Banks, K., Philip, R. C. M., Walley, R. M., & Stanfield, A. (2017). A pilot randomised controlled trial of a group based social skills intervention for adults with autism spectrum disorder. Research in autism spectrum disorders. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2017.08.001
Who conducted and funded the project?
This project was conducted by Ruth Ashman, Kirsty Banks, Ruth Philip, Robert Walley, and Andrew Stanfield. The project was funded by the RS Macdonald Charitable Trust.