For many youth with ASD, there is a connection between anxiety problems and social skill difficulties. Because youth may be aware of their social skill weaknesses, it is during the middle and high school years that they may experience even greater social anxiety as demand for social skills increases. As such, treatments that serve to reduce anxiety and also assist in teaching social skills could be especially useful for teenagers and there is research to support this notion
There are many potential ways of addressing social skills and anxiety. It could be through specialized evidence-based social skills programs, like the PEERS program, or through specialized cognitive behaviour therapy that aims to address both the anxiety and the social difficulties head on. Increasingly, there is a third option, focused on social recreation, which involves providing a group of peers opportunities to interact in an enjoyable way in a semi-structured social environment. This would consist of times when facilitators provide activities to complete or a game to play to make social interaction more successful but without specific instruction or guidance for social interaction.
A number of enterprising York University undergraduate students in the Faculty of Health have launched their own social recreation program for teens with ASD, called the Autism Teenage Partnership (ATP). The ATP is a group for teenagers with ASD that gives them chances to practice important social skills, in a fun, naturalistic semi-structured setting. The group uses a peer-to-peer model of teaching, as it meets once a week to give the opportunity for the participants to hang out with peer volunteers who do not have ASD, as well as with other peers with ASD, doing typical adolescent activities. In this way, social skills are learned organically through immersion or first-hand observation/experience. We spoke with Janson Chan, the director of ATP, and he told us about the inspiration behind the development of the program. Janson noticed that there were fewer supports available for his brother with ASD as his brother transitioned into high school. He believed that a program developed to target important social experiences would have benefitted his brother, as these skills became more important in his daily life. Not finding one that would be a good fit, Janson created his own.
The ATP is open to individuals aged 13-26 (with a majority younger participants at the moment) who have ASD and want to improve their social skills. Each week, the group participates in a fun activity such as cupcake decorating, pizza making or nature walks. In order to reduce the anxiety that participants feel when attending the group, each participant has a personal profile that outlines his/her triggers and coping mechanisms. There is no charge for the participants to be part of the program.
There is some research to also suggest that group-based social recreation programs can be helpful at reducing anxiety in individuals with ASD and anxiety-related issues. One study randomly assigned children and teens with ASD to one of two groups: either a group cognitive behaviour therapy program to address anxiety, or a structured social recreation program. In the cognitive behaviour therapy program, participants were taught to identify and respond to others’ emotions. They also examined their own anxiety-related triggers and learned coping mechanisms such as meditation. In the social recreation program, participants took part in individual (e.g., preparation of a meal, self-engaged behaviours like crafts) and group social activities (e.g., cooperative games). Participants in this group did not receive any explicit instruction on social interaction. This is similar the set up of the ATP in that the participants learn through experience rather than being taught specific skills. The researchers found that there were no significant differences between the groups in reports of anxiety at any time during the group. Around 50% of children in each group reported that their anxiety improved during treatment. The authors suggest that this is because the social recreation program addressed some deficits associated with ASD. It also promoted behavioural regulation and positive social skills through the activities, potentially reducing their levels of anxiety.
Certainly, more research is needed on the efficacy of these social recreation programs for teenagers with ASD. The existing research provides promising evidence for the power of involvement in a social group to support and even improve mental health for youth with ASD.