Current Research: Does teaching social skills to adolescents with autism improve their social-communicative behavior?

Based on an analysis of 24 studies, Salena Babb and colleagues reported that social skills interventions can lead to improved outcomes.

Behaving appropriately in social situations presents one of the most important impediments to success for many individuals with autism. Sometimes individuals with disabilities do not, for example, participate in reciprocal conversation; there are few or no back-and-forth interactions. Other times individuals may respond in a wholly inappropriate way, perhaps by screaming or running away from the setting.

In adolescence, when social interactions become a particularly important part of most students' days both in and out of school, inappropriate social-communication skills can cause or exacerbate problems. Because communication is a lynchpin in appropriate social interactions, scholars and advocates have proposed many different methods to teach individuals with disabilities to communicate and interact appropriately with their peers.

In this context, Babb, Raultson, McNaughton, Less, and Weintraub (2020) drew together all the studies they could find that included participants wtih autistic spectrum disorder of middle- or high-school age where outcomes were social interactions. They located 24 studies that reported results for more than 60 individuals.

For each study, they described a host of characteristics about (a) participants (e.g., age, gender, communication competence, etc.), (b) interventions (e.g., whether it focused on peers, the individuals with autism, or both), (c) research design (the technical name for the way the intervention was managed), and more. In addition, for each study they calculated an effect size (a metric capturing the extent to which the participants' behavior differed during the time the intervention was in effect from the time when it was not in effect; there are lots of dipsy-doos in choosing and calculating effect sizes, so readers interested in those technical matters should read the report).

What did they find? Babb and colleagues reported that studies targeting increased initiations of social interactions showed positive results. They also reported that those studies that focused on "high-level social skills such as follow-up questions, others-focused conversation, engagement, and commenting" also showed positive results.

These are encouraging findings. To be sure, they are not definitive. Educators should not assume that any social skills intervention that they use with adolescents with autism will lead to improvements.

As Babb and colleagues indicated, it is important to note that too few of the studies in their corpus reported data about the fidelity with which the interventions were implemented. As a consequence, they cannot be sure that any differences between baseline and social skills interventions were, in fact, caused by the introduction of the interventions. It appears likely that they were, but without fidelity data, it's impossible to be certain. That's an important implication for anyone who's studying these interventions—and just about any intervention: Collect and report fidelity data! Monitor those data and take steps to ensure that the intervention is being implemented as planned!

Another reason to temper enthusiasm is that some earlier meta-analyses that examined the same general research literature did not find similarly encouraging findings about the benefits of social skills training. Kavale et al. (1997) drew their corpus from group-contrast research and Mathur et al. (1997) drew their’s from single-case research; both reported that they found limited support of the effectiveness of interventions.

Babb and colleagues did not compare their results to these earlier analyses, so I don't know to what they would attribute the differences. There are many possibilities such as the corpus of literature that each team analyzed (the reviews have some common studies, but they do not align precisely), the populations they studied (back to the studies in the corpus), the outcome measures on which they focused, the technical procedures for calculating effect sizes, and many others. I hope some future meta-analysis will move up a conceptual notch and integrate the studies from all of these sources, as appropriate, so that educators will have a more "meta" meta-analysis.

The Babb et al. (2020) is slated to be published in Remedial and Special Education in the near future. As of this writing, I think the article is still available for free. One can at least get the abstract by following the link the the following reference.

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References

Babb, S., Raulston, T. J., McNaughton, D., Lee, J-Y., & Weintraub, R. (2020). The effects of social skill interventions for adolescents with autism: A meta-analysis. Remedial and Special Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932520956362

Kavale, K. A. , Mathur, S. R. , Forness, S. R. , Rutherford, R. B. , & Quinn, M. M. (1997). Effectiveness of social skills training for students with behavior disorders: A meta-analysis. In T. E. Scruggs & M. A. Mastropieri (Eds.), Advances in learning and behavioral disabilities (Vol. 11, pp. 1–26). JAI.

Mathur S. R., Kavale, K. A., Quinn, M. M., Forness, S. R., & Rutherford, R. B. (1998). Social skills interventions with students with emotional and behavioral problems: A quantitative synthesis of single-subject research. Behavioral Disorders, 23(3), 193-201. http://doi.org/10.1177/019874299802300306