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Social skills training for children and adolescents with ASD

An article I co-authored was just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The project was led by Dr. Nora Choque-Olsson and Professor Sven Bölte at the Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at KI. In the study, children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder received a training programme to improve social skills.

About 1 % of children and adolescents have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in high income countries. The characteristics of ASD can be divided into two main types of behaviors1: restricted / repetitive behaviors and social communication / interaction behaviors.

Restricted / repetitive behaviors

-Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors
-Having overly focused interests
-Having a lasting and intense interest in certain topics, such as number, details, or facts

Social communication / interaction behaviors

-Getting upset by a slight change in a routine or being placed in a new or overly stimulating setting
-Making little or inconsistent eye contact
-Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities with others
-Responding in an unusual way when others show anger, distress, or affection
-Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversations

Negative outcomes associated with ASD

Due to difficulties in social communication and interaction, children and adolescents with ASD have problems interacting with their peers in school and other social activities. They are at increased risk of social isolation and bullying in the school years. This isolation may continue as they become adults.

”58-78 % of adults with autism have poor or very poor outcomes in terms of independent living, educational attainment, employment, and peer relationships.” 2

KONTAKT treatment protocol

The KONTAKT-treatment has been developed to improve social skills in children and adolescents with ASD.

296 children and adolescents met in groups of 4-8 over 12 weekly sessions at clinics in Stockholm and Örebro. The participants practiced social skills through discussions, role-play, computerized training, and more. Sessions were delivered in a structured format together with two trainers. Homework assignments in-between sessions were used to apply new skills in everyday life.

Before and after the treatment, we handed out questionnaires about social skills, stress, and general functioning. We then compared the effects of receiving the active treatment with a control group that received standard care.

Results

We found that adolescents improved more after KONTAKT than standard care. Girls, but not boys, showed greater benefits from KONTAKT compared to standard treatment directly after treatment but not at the follow-up 3 months after treatment. There were no differences between KONTAKT and standard care for children.

We conclude that KONTAKT can be a valuable complement to standard care in regular clinics. However, the effects are modest and more research is needed on how to improve the treatment options available for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

References


  1. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml ^
  2. Lai, M.-C., Lombardo, M. V, & Baron-Cohen, S. (2014). Autism. The Lancet, 383, 896–910. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61539-1 ^
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Oskar Flygare
PhD Student in psychology

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