Social skills training is a common treatment method for youth with ASD, yet very few evidence-based interventions exist to improve friendship skills for adolescents with ASD. Furthermore, little to no research has examined the effectiveness of teaching social skills in the classroom – arguably the most natural social setting of all.
This study examines change in social functioning for adolescents with high functioning ASD following the implementation of a school-based teacher-facilitated social skills intervention known as PEERS.
Under the auspices of The Help Group – UCLA Autism Research Alliance, 73 middle school students with ASD and their parents participated in the study through the Village Glen School, a non-public school for students with ASD. 38 participants were assigned to the PEERS treatment condition, while 35 participants were assigned to an alternative social skills curriculum. Participants received daily social skills instruction in the classroom for 20-30 minutes, five days per week, for 14 weeks. Instruction was provided by classroom teachers and teaching assistants.
Skills focusing on friendship development were targeted in the PEERS treatment group, including: verbal and nonverbal communication; electronic communication and online safety; appropriate use of humor; expanding and developing friendship networks; peer entry and exiting strategies; good host/guest behavior during get-togethers; good sportsmanship; methods for resolving peer conflict; and strategies for handling rejection. Skills were taught through didactic instruction using concrete rules and steps of social etiquette with role-play demonstrations. Students practiced newly learned skills during behavioral rehearsal exercises and weekly socialization homework assignments.
Students in the active treatment control group received the customary social skills scope and sequence curriculum taught at the Village Glen School. Targeted skills included: conversational skills, peer entry strategies, and conflict resolution.
Preliminary results reveal improvement in social functioning along multiple domains for the PEERS treatment group. Teacher-reports reveal significant decreases in Problem Behaviors on the Social Skills Rating System (SSRS; p < 0.05), particularly with regard to decreased Internalizing (p < 0.05). Improvement in teacher-reported overall Social Responsiveness was also observed on the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS; p < 0.01) in the areas of improved Social Awareness (p < 0.05), Social Cognition (p < 0.05), Social Communication (p < 0.01), Social Motivation (p < 0.01), and decreased Autistic Mannerisms (p < 0.05). Results further suggest improved Social Cognition (p < 0.05), according to parent-report. Teen self-reports of social functioning revealed improved knowledge of social skills on the Test of Adolescent Social Skills Knowledge (TASSK; p < 0.01), improved friendship quality on the Friendship Quality Scale (FQS) in the areas of Helpfulness (p < 0.05) and Security (p < 0.05), and increased frequency of hosted get-togethers with friends on the Quality of Socialization Questionnaire (QSQ; p < 0.05).
Results suggest the use of PEERS, a manualized school-based teacher-facilitated social skills program for adolescents, is effective in improving the social functioning of youth with ASD. This research represents one of the few teacher-facilitated treatment intervention studies aimed at improving the friendship skills of adolescents with ASD in the classroom.
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