Brigham Young University’s recent annual Autism Translational Research Workshop, Best Practices in Autism: Social Skills Interventions and Diagnostic Challenges, focused on ways to help professionals, educators, and parents practice evidence-based techniques. This year’s emphasis was on dealing with social skills in individuals with autism of all ages, as well as overcoming diagnostic challenges.
Sponsors of the event included BYU, BYU’s David O. McKay School of Education, Timpanogos Regional Hospital, and BYU Continuing Education.
The conference held over 300 people in attendance, with 13 presenters being featured, all professionals from across the state of Utah. Panels of parents and individuals with autism were also featured each day.
“Social Skills for Toddlers and Teenagers” (Court Allred, LCSW, U of U; Heather Davis, PhD, U of U)
One of the best ways to build the participation and social awareness in children and adolescents diagnosed with autism is to have them join and participate in social skills groups. Heather Davis and Court Allred from the University of Utah presented on the importance of social skills groups and the best ways to run them.
Social skills groups help those with autism spectrum disorders improve not only their social skills, but also their social anxiety in the long term. Allred and Davis observed noticeable changes in the children of their social skills group over the span of eight weeks. The children began to seek each other out during activities and started to build friendships with one another. They were able to state their names and interests and demonstrate skills they learned.
“When you know why they are doing what they are doing, you start to understand them [and] better know
how to help them stop their [socially isolating] behaviors,” Allred said.
One of the main obstacles they discovered through the social skills groups was that most parents had been
bombarded with misinformation about autism over the years. Often, parents are concerned with the uncertainty of their child’s future. Many are also worried about false misconceptions they have.
Davis explained, “Our job is to “unGoogle” all the information they’ve Googled.”
Parents provided feedback after eight weeks with the program and the majority were widely pleased with the experience.
“He has learned how to make and keep friends at school,” one parent said.
Another commented, “She is doing so much better talking and interacting with her peers.”
“Our main priority is providing clinical support. We just want [these] kids to grow and be effective,” Davis said.
“Social Skills for School Age and Young Adults” (Jubel Morgan, RN, U of U)
Getting school-aged children and young adults engaged in learning social skills is hard work. Jubel Morgan discussed ways to make social skills groups more effective, so that children would look forward to going every time.
Morgan emphasized using five different units to teach a variety of basic skills. The five units he covered were: understanding social interactions, communication, how to solve problems, getting to know others (including making friends and doing things with others), and emotional and social reciprocity.
“Use whatever activity you can to teach whatever concept you’re teaching,” Morgan explains. “There are tons of ideas. For conversation, for example, people use UNO cards and they take a turn. They listen to what somebody said, then the next person in line has to stay on topic with what that person said, and has to say something either about the color of the card or the number, and add to the story. They learn to pay attention to the subject of the story and [how to] add to it.”
Morgan spends about a month on each unit—such as problem solving skills—with the kids. At the end of each unit, he takes the kids on an outing in the community. Inexpensive activities he has tried and recommends doing include bowling, miniature golf, Frisbee golf, or even simply going to Chili’s and ordering off the kid’s menu.
Parents have shared positive feedback about the impact the groups have had on their children. Some children have gone from not communicating with others at all to starting conversations with their peers at school.
“We never know . . . the impact that these groups have,” Morgan said. “It’s hard to measure them and measure the outcome of the group, but parental input has been wonderful. It has buoyed me up and [kept me] wanting to [do] the groups.”
“Managing Behaviors During Evaluations” (Tyra Sellers, PhD, USU)
Certain behaviors can get in the way of conducting an effective assessment. Tyra Sellers presented information on how to best prepare and manage problem behaviors during evaluations. Such behaviors include crying, screaming, or even sulking.
Sellers explained that one of the best ways to avoid problem behaviors from occurring is to prepare before the appointment by calling the parent or a caregiver. Receiving as much information as possible helps with correctly planning for interactions with the child. Some examples of what to ask for would be about favorite toys, games, songs, or social interaction. Even knowing how the child communicates, especially if they’re frustrated, can help the evaluation go smoothly.
“These are just things that when you’ve done it for a long time, you’ve dealt with a lot of spit, or you’ve tried to dislodge a paper clip from someone’s mouth, you start to learn,” she shares.
When problem behaviors occur during an evaluation, Sellers recommends three basic strategies. First, evaluate the safety of the situation. Second, remember to breathe and remain calm. Third, remain neutral in your response. Avoid reasoning and negotiating, and monitor your own reactions.
“Pay for the value of the behavior. If you’re getting great behavior, give bigger praise or praise statements. If you’re getting cruddier behavior, then give less so,” Sellers suggests. “Do not give $100 for nickel behavior. I try to think about praise, tangibles, and breaks in terms of currency for the individual. If [they’re] doing something worthy of a million dollars of my praise, I will happily give it to [them]. But, if [they’re] doing something that is worth maybe a penny, then I will give [them] a penny. I ‘pay’ for the work that is given.”
These are just three of the sessions that were available during the conference. For more information, refer to autism.byu.edu for archives of past workshops. Conference sessions from this year will be available in April.
Writer: Janine Swart
Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922
Photo Credit: McKay Creative