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Research in Action - an Evaluation of the Secret Agent Society Social Skills Program in a Specialist School Context

Friday, 3 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
R. B. Beaumont1, K. Sofronoff2, K. M. Gray3, J. R. Taffe4, T. Clark5, D. M. Costley5, A. Redoblado Hodge6, J. Roberts7, S. K. Horstead8, K. Clarke8 and S. L. Einfeld9, (1)School of Psychology, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, (2)School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, (3)Monash University, Ferny Creek 3786, Australia, (4)Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology, School of Psychology & Psychiatry, Monash University, Clayton VIC, Australia, (5)Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT), Sydney, Australia, (6)Child Development Unit, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, Australia, (7)Autism Centre of Excellence, Griffith University, Mt Gravatt, Australia, (8)Brain & Mind Research Institute and Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney, Camperdown, Australia, (9)Faculty of Health Sciences and Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney, Camperdown NSW, Australia
Background: Social skill deficits are a core diagnostic feature of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). They include difficulties identifying and expressing emotions in appropriate ways, troubles initiating and maintaining conversations, challenges in engaging in interactive play and problems making and keeping friends. These social difficulties are most apparent at school, where teachers face the challenging task of supporting the social and emotional needs of students on the spectrum. As one of the world’s largest providers of autism-specific education, Aspect (Autism Spectrum Australia) sought to evaluate whether augmenting their existing primary- and high-school satellite class curriculum with a multimedia social skills program (The Secret Agent Society) would lead to better outcomes for their students with ASDs. 

 Objectives: This study aimed to evaluate whether the Secret Agent Society Program was effective in improving students’ social skills at home, at school and their peer interactions during classroom activities. It also aimed to evaluate whether the program resulted in sustained improvements in students’ social functioning at 6- and 12-month follow-up.

Methods: Eighty students aged 8.2 to 14.6 years who attended Aspect specialist classes for students with ASDs across five school districts participated in the study. The Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence and Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-4 were used to assess children’s intellectual and receptive language abilities respectively. Students were eligible to participate in the trial if they attended a school involved in the research and were aged between 8 and 15 years at the commencement of the study.

Students were assessed on parent-report, teacher/teacher-aide report, child competency and observational assessment measures of emotion recognition, emotion regulation and/or social skills at the beginning and end of a baseline period (approximately 2 months) where they engaged in the usual school curriculum. They then participated in the Secret Agent Society Program – a 10 week intervention consisting of a computer game, weekly child therapy sessions (each 90 minutes in duration), 4 x two-hour parent sessions, weekly teacher tip sheets and three- and six-month booster sessions. The program uses visual resources and fun games to teach children how to recognise emotions in themselves and others, manage feelings of anxiety and anger, talk and play with others, detect the difference between friendly joking and mean teasing and cope with bullying. The manualised program was delivered to groups of three to six students by one or two trained facilitators (typically their classroom teachers). Assessment measures were readministered at the end of the program, and at 6- and 12-months follow-up.

 Results: Results from hierarchical linear modelling analyses will be presented that evaluate the relative gains in social functioning made by students over the intervention and baseline periods. Six-month and 12-month follow-up data will also be reviewed to determine durability of treatment gains, together with data identifying factors that distinguished treatment responders from non-responders.

Conclusions: Results from this study provide support for the effectiveness of delivering the Secret Agent Society Program within a school context. Limitations of the study will be discussed, together with recommendations for school-based delivery of social skills programs to students with ASDs.

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