A hallmark of autism is difficulty navigating social interactions. Things like connecting with others, enjoying family get-togethers, or asking for help at a supermarket can be challenging for individuals with autism.

Because social interaction is central to relationships, school, work, and daily life, it’s long been a primary target of autism intervention—usually through social groups. Historically, though, these groups have missed the mark. 

One reason for this, says Dr. Michael Alessandri, Executive Director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, is that traditional social groups target the mechanics of social interaction (greeting someone, taking turns in a conversation, following the guidelines of a game, etc.) without taking into account “the very nuanced, ever-changing social dynamic.” 

“When you’re interacting with someone,” elaborates Mandy Alvarez, speech-language pathologist and founder of Integrated Children’s Therapy (ICT), “there’s much more going on than following fixed social rules. There are subtle changes in a person’s expression that shift the meaning of what they’re saying. Or, we read someone’s body language and shift what we’re saying based on how we think they feel.”  

Social mechanics alone aren’t without value; they can help people with more severe autism get through the day. But for those who are cognitively able and socially motivated, delving into the deeper layer of the social world can transform mechanical interactions into meaningful connections. 

Beyond Mechanics 

The paradigm for social groups is shifting, due in large part to the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, who developed the Social Thinking® framework.

Katie Sacasa, speech-language pathologist at ICT, explains why this approach is different: “You can teach someone how to behave in a social situation, but Social Thinking® teaches them why to do it.”  

It is the difference between social skills and social communication, Alvarez says. “You can learn social skills, but understanding social communication gives you a reason to use them.” 

Although more research on outcomes is needed, Alessandri and Alvarez are optimistic about the Social Thinking® approach, especially when clinicians take extra steps to maximize social groups.

Keys to Maximizing Social Groups

For members to fully reap the benefits of social groups, Alessandri says,  clinicians need to do a couple of key things: Make sure the members are ready for the group, and make sure they’re compatible with each other. 

Readiness for a social group is essential, Alessandri says, because certain skills build on others and not the other way around. It’s common, for instance, for a person with autism to struggle with self-regulation (the ability to manage emotions and behavior within the context of a situation). “If you teach someone how to interact socially but he’s still dysregulated, he’s too overwhelmed in social situations to practice what he’s learned.” But, if you teach him regulation skills first, then “he understands how he’s feeling and how to manage it, and social situations are a much safer place to experiment with interaction strategies.”

When it comes to ensuring group member compatibility, ICT looks at three main areas: Developmental level, speed at which a child processes information, and personality. 

“There is an art to matching children for a group,” says Alvarez. “You need to be able to step back and imagine how their unique strengths and challenges will play off each other and contribute to the overall success of the group.”

Sacasa has one parting thought about optimizing social groups: “Be patient,” she says. Thinking socially is remarkably complex for those with autism, and it takes time. “Long-term goals are important, but you can’t lose sight of the mini milestones along the way. They build on each other and over time result in graduating from being a wants-and-needs talker to being a communicator. Every milestone, no matter how small, is worthy of celebration.”