Parent-Assisted Social Skills Training to Improve Friendships in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Laugeson, E.A., Frankel, F., Mogil, C., Dillon, A.R. (2009). Parent-assisted social skills training to improve friendships in teens with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 39, 596-606.

Reviewed by Jessica Rothschild
Caldwell College

Why study this topic?

Research focusing on children of typical development has shown that it is important to build friendships throughout social development. Based on these findings, parents, teachers, and other providers often emphasize teaching children with autism the social skills needed to create personal relationships. However, there is limited research on the efficacy of teaching social skills to adolescents with autism. The research that has been conducted focuses on individual skills such as increasing the number of times a child makes conversational statements. A gap in research still remains in testing whether such increases lead to clinically important outcomes such as improving social competence, developing friendships, and engaging in social interactions outside of the intervention setting. This study evaluated the effects of a short-term social skills program called the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS). This program consisted of three components which included the use of evidence based strategies when teaching social skills to adolescents with autism, parental involvement, and the implementation of an adapted Children’s Friendship Training (CFT) social skills curriculum used for teaching.

What did the researchers do?

Thirty-three adolescents between the age of 13 and 17 and their parents participated in the study. The participants were divided into a Treatment Group or a Delayed Treatment Group. The treatment Group received the PEERS program for 12 weeks. The Delayed Treatment Group served as a control group (a group against which to compare the results of the treatment group) and received treatment at the end of the 12 weeks. The PEERS treatment focused on five social skill areas. First, reciprocal language was taught to help develop friendships. Second, parents were taught to aide their children in expanding social relationships with peers. Third, appropriate peer etiquette was taught to diminish any preconceived opinions already established about the participant’s social skills. Fourth, both the parents and participants were instructed on initiating and maintaining appropriate hosted get-togethers. Lastly, the participants were taught the use of appropriate social skills and social strategies when presented with a scenario involving peer rejection. These skills were modeled by the group leader and coaches, followed by role-playing exercises, and performance feedback. At the conclusion of each session each participant was assigned homework that provided them an opportunity to practice the new social skills learned during the week. Parents were also instructed on different strategies to use if the participant experienced difficulty with the assignment.

What did the researchers find?

Parent ratings revealed that the participants in PEERS significantly improved in the area of social skills including following social rules and social etiquette when compared to the control group. Specifically, the results demonstrated an increase in the frequency of hosted get-togethers, though not an increase in invited get-togethers. In addition, the participant’s parents reported an improvement in their child’s social skills.

What were the strengths and limitations of the study? What do the results mean?

Although the results demonstrate an increase in hosted get-togethers, the participants did not report a significant increase in invited get-togethers. Future research should focus on conducting follow-up sessions to ensure that these social skills are generalized to other settings and maintained over time. Another limitation to this study was the possibility of parent bias when reports were completed due to their participation in the PEERS treatment. Additional future research may assess reports from teachers or other individuals not directly participating in the study. Lastly, research may investigate the components of the PEERS individually with a smaller population, thus providing a more accurate measurement of each strategy and whether or not it is effective when teaching adolescents with autism social skills.