An innovative curriculum on self-discovery and friendship, “Expressions” is a therapeutic social skills training program in which ASD children and teens are paired up with neurotypical (NT) peers in structured role play exercises and interactive activities designed to improve their ability to build and maintain friendships, as well as respond appropriately in a variety of pleasant and unpleasant social situations involving, for example, humor, teasing, bullying, making and receiving compliments, or being rejected – just to name a few.
We maintain a 1:1 ASD to NT participant ratio in our groups. In other words, when it comes to two or three-people exercises, an ASD child is always paired with a neurotypical participant: a peer mentor of the same age, or an adult facilitator. Participants need to be verbal and able to maintain safe behavior in a group setting; therefore, children with high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome can benefit most from the program.
Expressions is a Regional Center vendor. Our vendor number is PW7261. If you wish to enroll, please call (310) 916-9294.
1.Expressions is not simply about coaching, or memorizing scripts of proper behavior. It strengthens the mental muscles governing and generating those behaviors – theory of mind, empathy, the ability to focus on others, the ability to learn via imitating, understanding the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and others’ behavior and feelings.
2.Including NT peers, and adding the idea of self-discovery and self-improvement for all participants, ASD and NT alike, de-emphasizes the “disorder component” of the identity of those children who are aware of their diagnosis. In fact, the diagnosis will not be discussed or referred to at all during the sessions. Parents will be encouraged to describe the program to their children as a self-discovery class. The advantage of this positioning is that the child is less likely to go into the class with the thought “my parents are sending me here because there is something wrong with me and I need to be fixed.” This type of thinking reduces motivation for participation and self-esteem. Avoiding the generation of such negative thoughts gives the facilitating therapists an opening to work on the self-esteem and identity concept of ASD children.
3.Including NT peers of the same age range in the role plays allows ASD children to practice and refine their social skills based on the reactions, behavior, facial expressions, pragmatic language, etc. of mainstream children as they would see in the real world – but in a safe, structured environment, without the risk of encountering negative experiences.
4.As a result, aside from providing therapeutic skill building, the program also fosters an awareness and aspiration in children to use their differences in abilities in order to help one another. For example, NT children are better at social skills, and can help the autistic ones in that area – but there are areas in which an autistic child might be more talented, skilled or knowledgeable (like math, science, or dinosaur species) and can help the NT peers. This will help ASD children decrease their disorder identity, raise their self-esteem, and find emotional reward in friendships.
How is Expressions different from other social skills groups?
No matter what social skill is targeted, the program’s teaching method relies on the same learning process: Starting from observation of the targeted skill, we proceed to assisted analysis (how is it done?), then to replicating in session, and finally to replicating in real life (as a homework assignment). This methodology will also help ASD children “learn how to learn” social skills. This meta-learning is an added benefit of the curriculum, since – as the old adage states – it is better to teach someone how to fish than to give him fish!
During the sessions, facilitators are at all times ready to provide individual assistance to ASD children if they need help with a certain exercise.
The curriculum consists of 30 sequential sessions, in which one “lesson” builds on the previous one. The sessions can be broken down into 4 modules.
I.The exploration of self and others as unique individuals. (“Introspection”)
This module is meant to lay the groundwork – emotionally and cognitively – to the skill building lessons by strengthening ASD children’s ability to use theory of mind and to imitate others. It also aims to increase ASD children’s motivation to participate meaningfully in the activities by raising their self-esteem, working on a positive, unique self-concept, and identifying the emotional rewards in social interactions and relationships.
II.Non-verbal communication and its relationship to our emotions. (“How to say”)
The three major topics addressed in this module are: voice (pitch, volume, intonation); body language; and facial expressions (including eye contact). With the use of verbal and non-verbal exercises that get progressively more sophisticated – solo tasks, interactive activities, guided role-play, and freestyle role-play – ASD children will learn how to identify the emotions and intent of others based on non-verbal communication, and how to use non-verbal communication appropriately in order to get their messages across.
III. The semantics and pragmatics of language as they contribute to effective, reciprocal communication. (“What to say”)
In this module, we will use role play to guide ASD teens on topics such as how to introduce oneself; how to join, start and end a conversation; the importance of staying on topic; how to change topic; how to give and receive compliments, or express disagreement; how context can define, or cause variations to, the meaning of verbal communication; how to identify jokes, humor and irony and how to respond to them.
IV. A culmination and synthesis of the previous 3 modules – teaching ASD children how to use the tools they have learnt so far in order to build and maintain friendships. (“Problem Solving”)
The last module gives ASD children an opportunity to practice problem-solving in interpersonal relationships using the tools they acquired in the previous sessions. For example: an important part of friendship is being there for our friends – but how do we know when our friend is sad or unhappy (revisit non-verbal signs) and what do we do in order to help them (revisit the semantics and pragmatics of language, cause-and-effect relationships between our actions and others’ feelings). This last module also prepares ASD children to successfully handle unpleasant social situations such as teasing, bullying, and negative peer pressure.
At the conclusion of each session, participants are given “homework assignments,” which are intended to help ASD children generalize the knowledge they learnt during that meeting. These are usually not written tasks, but activities or conscious observations they need to do. Parents are strongly encouraged to assist their children in completing these exercises. If the child has a school counselor, speech therapist, or one-on-one aide at the school, we also like to involve these professionals in the process. With the written agreement of the parents, we communicate with relevant school staff about the homework assignment and any other issues that would need to be worked on between sessions.
In addition to helping ASD children improve their social skills, another major objective of Expressions is to help them forge lasting friendships with other children, so that when they are discharged from the program, they are part of an improved social system where they can continue to develop their social skills by relying on natural supports, rather than on institutional learning venues such as Expressions.
Generalization, community intergation