Social Skills for Teenagers

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 View Comments

Research and practice combine to demonstrate benefits of social skills training program for teens.

Guest post by Gabriel Dichter, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

I would like to share with the Autism Speaks community my experiences running a new social skills clinic for teenagers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities in Carrboro, NC. After focusing exclusively on brain-imaging research for a number of years, I had the opportunity to start a group-based eight-week clinic focused on building social skills with my colleague Lauren Turner-Brown, PhD. Most participants are on the autism spectrum, and the response has been remarkable and gratifying.  

First, a little background. Repeatedly, families told us about their teenagers’ pressing need for help with social skills. In 2005, Dr. Turner-Brown, David Penn, and I conducted a small pilot study of a new treatment designed to improve social skills in high-functioning individuals with autism. We called the new treatment Social Cognition and Interaction Training for Autism. We reported overwhelmingly positive results of this pilot study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. This success led to pilot funding from Autism Speaks to further develop and refine the treatment. We now offer this intervention to high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum. 

Our clinic focuses on social cognition (understanding the feelings of others), social skills (improving social behaviors) and real-world social functioning. The group setting is a big plus. Social functioning, by definition, includes back-and-forth exchanges with peers. Early sessions focus on skill development. We then progress to role-playing. At first, group leaders initiate the role-play exercises. This segues into role-playing between participants, with group leaders and other participants providing suggestions. This provides a safe venue for peer feedback, which can resonate far more deeply than advice from a clinical psychologist!

I’ve found my role in this clinic deeply satisfying. I love seeing group members open up as they become more comfortable with the group. It’s heartwarming to hear from parents about participants trying new skills at home. It’s also a learning experience for the graduate students and post-docs who help run the group. They find the inherently unpredictable nature of a room full of teenagers both invigorating and challenging. We’ve all been touched by stories of the new friendships that result from brave group members trying out their newfound social skills outside “class.” To be sure, individual progress is variable. Still, we strive for personal successes for each member of the group.

We look forward to working with more families as part of this clinic, offered through the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. For more information, please see the CIDD website and our brochure. Potential participants or caregivers may contact Julia Tarr (julia.tarr@cidd.unc.edu; (919)-843-1529) for more information about scheduling and registration.

I also want to personally thank Autism Speaks for supporting our research. The clinic is a great example of how the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities and Autism Speaks have supported the translation of clinical research into clinical practice.

Editor’s note: Click here to find a social skills group in your area (not necessarily affiliated with Dr. Dichter's). Also see our related blog “IMFAR Update on Teens and Adults with Autism.”  Autism Speaks has and is supporting a number of studies involving adolescents with autism. You can explore these and other Autism Speaks studies using our website’s grant search.