Social Problem Solving: Best Practices for Youth with ASD

Joey, age 9, has been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and due to his high functioning has been mainstreamed into a fourth grade classroom with a shadow. His challenging behaviors typically center on his peer interactions in spite of adequate academic performance. When in a group situation he becomes very argumentative when his ideas are not used, becomes very bossy on the playground, and has run out of the classroom when things do not go his way. Megan, age 14, has also been diagnosed with ASD. She isolates herself from her peers and rarely initiates or responds to greetings. Conversations are almost nonexistent unless they are focused on her favorite topics of anime or fashion.

Children with ASD described as above typically have significant social skills impairments and often require direct instruction in order to address these deficits. They often have difficulty in many of the following areas: sharing, handling frustration, controlling their temper, ending arguments calmly, responding to teasing, making/keeping friends, complying with requests. Strong social skills contribute to the initiation and maintenance of positive relationships with others and as a result contribute to peer acceptance. Social skills impairments, on the other hand, contribute to peer rejection. The ability to get along with peers, therefore, is as important to self-esteem as the ability to meet with academic success in the classroom. This article will review the domain of social skills, the assessment of social skills, the importance of social problem-solving and a social skills curriculum which incorporates evidence-based practices to address this very important area.

Social information processing (SIP) is a widely-studied framework for understanding why some children have difficulty getting along with peers. A particularly well-known SIP model developed by Crick and Dodge (1994) describes six stages of information processing that children cycle through when evaluating a particular social situation: encoding (attending to and encoding the relevant cues), interpreting (making a judgment about what is going on), clarifying goals (deciding what their goal is in the particular situation), generating responses (identifying different behavioral strategies for attaining the decided upon goal), deciding on the response (evaluating the likelihood that each potential strategy will help reach their goal and choosing which strategy to implement), and performing the response (doing the chosen response). It is assumed that the steps outlined above operate in real time and frequently outside of conscious awareness. Numerous studies have shown that unpopular children have deficits at multiple stages of the SIP model. For example, they frequently attend to fewer social cues before deciding on peers’ intent, are more likely to assume that peers have acted towards them with hostile intent, are less likely to adopt pro-social goals, are more likely to access aggressive strategies for handling potential conflicts, evaluate aggressive responses more favorably, and are less skillful at enacting assertive and prosocial strategies.

Deficits in social skills are one of the defining characteristics of children with ASD. These impairments manifest in making and keeping friends, communicating feelings appropriately, demonstrating self-control, controlling emotions, solving social problems, managing anger, and generalizing learned social skills across settings. Elliott and Gresham (1991) indicated that social skills are primarily acquired through learning (observation, modeling, rehearsal, & feedback); comprise specific, discrete verbal and nonverbal behaviors; entail both effective and appropriate initiations and responses; maximize social reinforcement; are influenced by characteristics of environment; and that deficits/excesses in social performance can be specified and targeted for intervention. Social skills can be conceptualized as a narrow, discrete response (i.e., initiating a greeting) or as a broader set of skills associated with social problem solving. The former approach results in the generation of an endless list of discrete skills that are assessed for their presence/absence and are then targeted for instruction. Although this approach has an intuitive appeal and is easily understood, the child can easily become dependent on the teacher/parent in order to learn each skill.

An alternative approach focuses on teaching a problem solving model that the child is able to apply independently. Rather than focusing on teaching a specific behavioral skill, the focus is on teaching a social problem solving model that the learner would be able to use as a “tool box.” The well-used saying “give a person a fish and she eats for a day but teach her to fish and she eats for a lifetime” is particularly relevant. The social problem solving approach offers the promise of helping the child with ASD to become a better problem solver, thereby promoting greater independence in social situations and throughout life.

After many years of conducting social skills training using the specific skill approach, the authors have developed a model of social problem solving that uses the easily learned acronym of POWER. The steps of POWER-Solving® include:

 

Put problem into words

Observe feelings

Work out your goal

Explore solutions

Review plan

 

Each of the five steps of POWER-Solving® has been previously identified as reliably distinguishing between children with emotional/behavioral disorders and psychologically well-adjusted individuals. The ability to “Put problem into words” is critical in order to start the problem solving process. Children with ASD often have difficulties finding the words to identify a problem. Thus, the first step in this approach involves direct training in the use of the rubric “I was… and then…” Upon entering the classroom and finding a peer in his seat Joey immediately pushed the peer in an attempt to get him out of his seat. Through the use of POWER-Solving® Joey was taught to articulate “I was walking into the classroom and then I saw that Billy was in my seat.”

The second step of “Observe feelings” was addressed by helping Joey develop a feelings vocabulary (e.g., angry, frustrated, scared, sad) as well as measuring the intensity of these emotions using a scale from one to ten, with a one being “very weak” and a ten being “very strong.” Photographs and drawings were used extensively to capitalize on his strong visual skills.

The third step of POWER-Solving®, “Work out your goal?” involves identifying the goal and the motivation to reach the chosen goal. This critical step sets the stage for what follows. The goal must be specific and measurable, consistent with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles. Joey was able to identify that his goal consisted of two parts. First, he wanted to get Billy out of his seat and second, he wanted him to still be his friend. He reported that his desire to reach this goal was a nine on the ten-point scale.

The fourth step of POWER-Solving® involves “Explore solutions.” Socially skilled individuals are able to generate a range of effective solutions but those with impairments are more limited and often apply the same rigid solution over and over again in spite of repeated ineffectiveness. Joey was taught to “brainstorm,” which involves generating as many solutions as possible that might reach the stated goal, provided the solution is safe, fair, and effective. Joey was able to identify that approaching Billy and saying “Excuse me but I need to sit in my seat now” would help him to accomplish his goal(s). Behavioral rehearsal, combined with coaching and feedback, helped Joey to become fluent in applying this solution.

The final step of POWER-Solving®, “Review plan,” involved Joey reviewing his plan to use this skill the next time the situation presented and to reward himself by saying “I am proud of myself for figuring this out.”

POWER-Solving® has been applied successfully in multiple settings such as the classroom, a summer treatment program, clinical settings and home environments. The curriculum is systematic and relies heavily on visual cues and supports. Children are taught how to problem-solve first using their “toolbox” (i.e., the five steps of POWER-Solving®). The children are presented with specific unit lessons on each of the five steps of POWER-Solving®. All children have an opportunity to practice each step of POWER-Solving®. After learning each step of POWER, the children have acquired a “toolbox” which they can begin to apply to social situations.

When teaching social skills, it is important to coach the children through behavioral rehearsal activities to promote skill acquisition, performance, generalization and fluency. Additionally, daily activities reinforce these skills, some of which include designing their own feelings thermometer, developing novel products via group collaboration, and developing a skit to teach a specific skill.

To increase students’ performance of the desired skills, use of a token economy may be helpful, whereby points are earned during the day for displaying appropriate behavior, demonstrating a predetermined individualized social behavioral objective and for using the POWER-Solving® steps. At the end of every day, points could be exchanged for a reward. In addition to the direct instructional format, incidental teaching should be used in anticipation of a challenging situation as well as a consequence for failure to use the steps when confronted with a specific problem. An experienced social skills coach, generalization strategies, and a systematic plan to teach and reinforce skills are critical for success.

 

Please feel free to contact us at Behavior Therapy Associates for more information about best practices for social skills training, as well as information regarding the POWER-Solving curriculum. We can be reached at 732-873-1212, via email mselbst@behaviortherapyassociates.com or on website at www.BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com.

References

Crick, N.R., & Dodge, K.A. (1994). A review and reformulation of social information-processing mechanisms in children’s social adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 74–101.

 

Elliott, S.T. & Gresham, F. M. (1991). Social skills intervention guide: Practical strategies for social skills training. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

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