Social skills groups may help improve social competence for children and adolescents with autism

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People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often struggle to interact socially in the same way as everyone else. Recognising emotions and communicating can be very difficult for them.

One approach that has grown in popularity is social skills groups, which aim to improve social competence, communication skills and quality of life for people with ASD.

A new systematic review from the Cochrane Developmental, Psychosocial and Learning Problems Group investigates the effectiveness of these groups for people with ASD aged 6-21 years. The reviewers looked for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared social skills training with a control (no intervention, waiting list or treatment as usual) and investigated outcomes such as social competence, social communication, quality of life, emotion recognition, and any other specific behaviours.

They found 5 RCTs including a total of 196 participants, all conducted in the US and mostly focusing on children aged 7-12.

Overall, the risk of bias in these studies is quite high and the generalisability of the results to the UK health service is limited.

Here’s what they found:

  • There is some evidence that social skills groups improve:
    • Overall social competence (ES = 0.47, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.16 to 0.78, P = 0.003)
    • Friendship quality (ES = 0.41, 95% CI 0.02 to 0.81, P = 0.04)
  • No differences were found between treatment and control groups in relation to:
    • Emotional recognition (ES = 0.34, 95% CI -0.20 to 0.88, P = 0.21) assessed in two studies
    • Social communication as related to the understanding of idioms (ES = 0.05, 95% CI -0.63 to 0.72, P = 0.89), assessed in only one study
  • A single study suggested decreases in loneliness as a result of the intervention (ES = -0.66, 95% CI -1.15 to -0.17)
  • No effects on child or parental depression were reported
  • No side effects were reported from the treatment

The reviewers concluded:

There is some evidence that social skills groups can improve social competence for some children and adolescents with ASD. More research is needed to draw more robust conclusions, especially with respect to improvements in quality of life.

Link

Reichow B, Steiner AM, Volkmar F. Social skills groups for people aged 6 to 21 with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD008511. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008511.pub2.

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