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


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.


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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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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