Some people wonder about what makes an autism support group different from a social skills group for teens and adults on the autism spectrum. There are similarities and differences between these types of groups.
Similarities between Autistic Support Groups and Social Skills Groups for Adults & Teens
I’m a psychologist, and I specialize in working with teens and adults who consider themselves autistic, aspie, neurodiverse, or on the autism spectrum. The concern I hear them most frequently express is that they feel lonely and want to build friendships.
Support Groups and Social Skills Groups provide opportunities for people on the autism spectrum to develop social communication skills that facilitate them in making friends and improving their relationships at work, school, home, and other settings. Such groups also help them gain a sense of community with peers who understand and accept them.
Both support groups and social skills groups allow a person to safely explore their own autistic identity. Listening to other people on the autism spectrum share their personal experiences can be life changing. All those quirks you thought were unique to you and all those behaviors people called “odd”, you suddenly hear others with autism describe as they recount their own life experiences. It can be validating to hear their stories and realize you’re not alone in the universe. You are not the odd person out. You feel more comfortable being yourself, amongst a group of people who get you!
Both Support Groups and Social Skills Groups also provide you with opportunities to engage in social interactions. Initiating conversations may be challenging for you. In fact, you might be hit by a host of self-critical thoughts, such as “They’re not going to like me” or “I’m bad at starting conversations”, which often prevent you from initiating a conversation. Support Groups and Social Skills Groups can be a safe place in which to practice your social communication skills and overcome some of these fears and self-critical thoughts.
Advantages of Autistic Support Groups Vs. Social Skills Groups
Support Groups for Teens & Adults with Autism
Support groups are sometimes run by an Autistic self-advocate, someone who identifies as being on the autism spectrum, or another community member who usually has a close family member with autism. Due to their first-hand experience with autism, they are equipped with knowledge and an inherent motivation to help others on the spectrum. These support groups offer opportunities to connect with others on the autism spectrum while discussing relevant issues that many autistic people face.
Social Skills Groups for Teens & Adults with Autism
Social Skills Groups tend to have more structure than Autistic Support Groups because they usually cover specific topics and are lead by a professional with autism training, such as psychologists, speech language therapist, or licensed clinical social workers. Due to the facilitator’s expertise, they can provide education and mental health support to empower individuals with autism to lead lives they find meaningful.
Social skills groups provide explicit training and guidance in communication strategies (like how to initiate or maintain a conversation, how to actively listen) in order to increase one’s ability to develop friendships, improve their communication with family, teachers, co-workers, or supervisors.
This explicit training may come in the form of psychoeducation (providing education and information to support a person’s mental health and wellbeing), modeling (a staff member models social behavior), role-plays (give the group members a social scenario and they practice acting out how to handle it using the skills they have learned in group), and experiential practice (for example, group members pair up and engage in a conversation while implementing social-communication strategies they’ve been learning in group).
Social Skills Groups Can Benefit Neurodiverse Adults & Teens
The focus of autism research and treatment has been on childhood development. However, emerging research I have conducted in collaboration with Dr. Solomon at the UC Davis MIND Institute indicates that adults with autism can greatly benefit from social skills groups. This is why I have dedicated my career to developing social skills groups tailored for adults on the autism spectrum and adults who identify as Neurodiverse or high in autism traits. I am passionate about my work and would love to tell you more about it!
Please look for my next blog to hear more about my social skills groups, and the unique strategies we’re employing to support and empower older teens and adults on the autism spectrum…
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, CA. She specializes in socials skills groups for neurodiverse adults and teens on the autism spectrum.