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posted: 12/4/2013 11:36 AM

Social skills practice eases anxiety for children with autism

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By Sherry Manschot

According to the organization Autism Speaks, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States. Autism affects 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys. With statistics like that, it's likely that you are either the parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum or know someone who is.

There is a wide range in how children are affected and the level at which they can function, but one commonality is that they may have difficulty with social interaction: And that often comes with a high level of anxiety.

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It might be evident through a child who would rather spend all his time playing video games by himself rather than playing them with peers. It could be the child who gets along with older or younger children but struggles with his own peer group on the playground. It could even be the child who sees himself as typical but has difficulty with appropriate conversations.

Many children along the spectrum need guidance on how to navigate day-to-day social interactions. Whereas typical children learn those cues at home, at school and on the playground, a child with autism does not. They may not be able to pick up on the ability or even understand the need to actively listen to others, to initiate a conversation or how to engage in the give and take of casual conversation.

Some parents find that a social skills group can be of great help. Psychologist Dr. Timothy Wahlberg has been leading social skills groups for children, teens and young adults in his practice at The Prairie Clinic in Geneva for more than a decade and is the author of the book "Finding the Gray." He sees these groups as a way for children to gain understanding of what they need to know to be successful in life.

Wahlberg explains that for many children on the spectrum there is a cyclical situation of control and anxiety. A child may want to interact with peers but have a strong need for consistency. When consistency wanes, they find it difficult to adjust. Anxiety builds up and becomes overwhelming, eliciting a sort of fight-or-flight response, and they either argue with peers trying to gain some control or retreat to a point where they no longer seek out peer activity.

In his groups, Wahlberg helps children understand how to regain some control over their role in social interactions as well as how to manage anxiety. Over a two-year period of bi-weekly, one-hour sessions, he helps them become more engaging.They may start with learning to initiate conversations about weekend activities among group members. He gives them tools to help handle stressful situations with peers. He is coaching them so they can experience the benefits of positive social interactions.

For some children, especially those who might be higher functioning and view themselves as a person without a disability, they might not see a need to take part in a social skills group. So getting their cooperation can be challenging.

"Finding what motivates your child is the first step in changing behavior," says Wahlberg. "We want them to learn that they have something to gain by learning and practicing these skills. We then focus on bringing down the anxiety level and that's when we see them begin to connect with others."

Social skills groups can help a child be successful at any age. Wahlberg works with young children where the goal is to manage simple classroom behavior. At the middle-school and high-school ages, managing peer relationships may be the goal because as children get older the difference in social abilities becomes more prevalent.

Dr. Wahlberg also has clients who come back to him long after they have officially left the program.

"I had a young man in his 20s who called me when he had a job interview and was feeling anxious about it," says Wahlberg. "We were able to work through it and give him some tools so that he could go into the interview feeling confident and in control."

How do you know when your child no longer needs to be a part of a social skills group? Wahlberg says there begins to be a natural transition whereby the child engages the others in the group more easily. You see them take those skills into the classroom and onto playground with them. But the real tell is when their social schedules begin to fill up with play dates, invitations, etc.

According to Wahlberg, "the ultimate goal is to get out of the office and into the game of life!"

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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