Overcoming Autism’s Social Barriers

School bus autism story

For teens with autism, simple interactions like returning a classmate’s “hello” can be an excruciating challenge. This makes it hard for these kids to build relationships, can leave them depressed and lonely and can ultimately limit how well they function as adults. Dr. Felice Orlich is finishing an innovative study that tries to help teens with autism break through this isolation by enlisting school peers to expand their social networks.

“If these kids feel more included and more comfortable having social exchanges in school, it could have a profound impact on their happiness,” says Orlich, director of outreach at Seattle Children’s Autism Center and principal investigator in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development.

For the study, Orlich and colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Michigan recruited 77 teens with autism spectrum disorder and average to above-average cognitive skills. These kids are are able to go to regular schools and do well in class, but are also often the kids who sit alone at the school lunch table, not talking to anyone.

Half of the teens with ASD in the study participated in an after-school social ENGAGE group with typically developing peers who school counselors recommended as a good match. The other half participated in an after school SKILLS group including only kids with ASD modeled after treatments typically provided in the clinic and schools. Both groups learned social skills. The ENGAGE group had an added bonus. In addition, to learning social skills in group, the kids spent eight weeks completing social “homework” assignments like going to lunch, movies or school football games together. The goal was for the more typical kids to create a bridge between the teens with autism and broader social groups, and to help them generalize skills learned to their day-to-day school life.

“The peers become the change agents,” Orlich says.

In the study’s preliminary findings, both groups improved in their social engagement over time. The teens with autism matched with typical peers, however, reported having more friends, feeling less lonely and socially stressed and even sending more text messages than before the study started. What’s more, the Bellevue School District participated in the study and was so impressed by the peer approach that the district made it a standard part of its autism support services. And schools nationwide have asked for more information about implementing the approach.

Orlich thinks that improvements for both groups might stem from the fact that the interventions occurred in school versus the status quo of being delivered in the clinic. Studies have shown that children with autism have a hard time translating skills into a new context, so teaching skills in school might make it easier for kids to apply them there.

Looking ahead, Orlich hopes to investigate whether the peer intervention has a lasting impact.

“I’d love to extend the intervention and monitor its effects,” Orlich says. Young people with autism have a difficult time entering the work force and attaining college degrees despite their strengths. “It’s reasonable to think that providing the bridge to network with peers will make these kids more likely to go to college, live on their own and hold down a job.”