SOCIAL ACTIVITY GROUPS:
another approach for helping to bridge the friendship gap
by Marci Wheeler
Social relationships are an integral and critical part of life.
For all people, social skills deficits are associated with peer
acceptance and school performance in childhood and later with mental
health issues and employment success in adulthood. Social deficits
are a defining characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Individuals
with Autism Spectrum Disorders do not typically learn appropriate
behavior through exposure to socially competent peers. Most social
skills have to be systematically taught and consistently practiced.
Opportunities to practice social skills are lacking for many individuals
on the spectrum. This lack of knowledge, opportunity and practice
leads to continued social skills deficits, and a continued cycle
of peer rejection and isolation.
Teaching social skills to individuals on the autism
spectrum can be a daunting challenge for professionals and families.
There are many aspects to understanding, acquiring, and performing
social skills. Currently there is a major shortage of formal social
skills training group opportunities. Some parents whose children
have received formal social skills training still find the need
for a variety of opportunities to practice new skills that have
been taught. Parents are expressing the need to start their own
social activity groups as an avenue to provide social opportunities
and practice as well as to help facilitate social networks for their
Some parents and professionals are now taking
the lead in establishing social activity groups. The Indiana Resource
Center for Autism continues to receive an increasing number of calls
about social skills instruction. Presently, professionals and parents
express the need for information on both formal social skills training
groups and informal social activity groups. Both types of groups
are important avenues for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders
to develop and practice social skills.
Social skills training groups typically provide
a systematic approach which includes assessment, development of
goals, selection of strategies and techniques, and then instruction.
A trained professional leads the group and monitors progress toward
mastery of designated goals. Social activity groups are much more
informal and focus on providing opportunities for engaging in activities
with others in a social setting. The information in this article
will focus on the development of informal social activity groups.
The purpose of a social activity group is:
• To provide planned and organized opportunities
for social activities and experiences with others
• To provide opportunities to informally practice
social skills with others
• To provide an accommodating environment to experience
successful social interactions
• To provide opportunities for various types of
recreational events with others.
Often there are additional outcomes such as the
development of long-term friendships, and/or mentoring relationships,
and of course just plain fun!
Groups can be developed for individuals of all
ages and functioning levels. The suggestions outlined here were
informally gathered from those who have had successful experiences
establishing a social activity group for individuals on the autism
spectrum. The information is summarized briefly and includes hints
and resources that others have found to be helpful to the planning
and ultimate success of their groups.
First, before sharing the suggestions and resources
that others have found helpful, I will briefly describe two social
activity groups in Bloomington that have been very successful over
the past several years. Initially an adult group for individuals
16+ years old was started. The adult group was the result of the
persistence of a young man with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who
continually shared with the local Autism Society of America (ASA)
chapter information about the need for such a group. He also provided
information on similar groups for adults that he found around the
country. Shortly thereafter parents in the local ASA chapter developed
a social activity group for their children ages 10 through early
Both groups were formed and maintained by a small
group of dedicated volunteers associated with the local ASA chapter.
The volunteers are 2-3 professionals and 2-3 parents who organize
and facilitate the groups. Both groups continue to be supported
in part by the local ASA. For example, funding for activities and/or
transportation is subsidized if a participant needs assistance.
A scrapbook of pictures taken during activities is maintained by
the local chapter. Initially when both social activity groups were
started, they met at the same facility as the ASA chapter, sometimes
at the same date and time. At times there has been discussion of
forming a group for younger children ages 6-10, though no volunteers
have committed to actually starting a group.
Both groups were formed as social activity groups
for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Age groups were
targeted as mentioned above and no limits were imposed as to the
number of members. Recruitment of members was done by informing
those on the local ASA contact list. Initially, for each group,
two hours was set aside with a clear start and finish time. Currently
the length of meetings depends on the activity scheduled.
Each group schedules monthly meetings with both
groups occasionally meeting together for activities such as a trip
to a local lake, museum, or an Indiana University sporting event.
The adult group generally has two meetings a month; one meeting
at a local restaurant for dinner (the group usually chooses to meet
at the same one each month) and the second meeting is an activity.
The activity for the month is decided upon by the members attending
the dinner. Those not attending the dinner are informed and invited
to attend the newly scheduled event.
Many of the adults in the group do live independently
or with support in their own apartment. Others live with their parents
or are college students who may, or may not, live in town. Information
about meetings is sent out via email to parents of the younger group
and frequently to both individuals and parents of the adult group.
Occasionally phone calls are made as reminders for an upcoming event
or to get a response before an event to gage attendance. Sometimes
more exact numbers of those planning to attend are needed so arrangements
for transportation, tickets to an event, or chaperones can be made
Most activities scheduled for the younger group
are also open to attendance by siblings and friends of group members.
Parents are always welcome and generally make the decision as to
whether or not their child needs their support. Contact with parents
and/or support personnel is rather informal; group email messages
and phone chains as needed and/or individual phone calls, emails,
or discussion at pick up/drop off times.
There is a lot of informal instruction and practice
of social skills but this instruction is clearly not the focus of
these social activity groups. Regardless, there have been many positive
social benefits for members of both groups. Invitations to the birthday
parties of group members, the increased knowledge and desire to
use the phone, expanded interest in community activities, events,
and places, and an expanded network of playmates and peers to interact
with on a regular basis are positive benefits seen among members
of the younger group. Members of the adult group have the benefit
of enjoying activities of their choosing with peers. Others gain
greater independence and responsibility for their leisure time.
Children and adults are more confident and better able to socialize
in the community as reported by themselves and/or their families.
Autism Spectrum Disorders &Considerations
When Developing Social Activity Groups
There are important decisions to be made when
starting a social activity group. Some of the decisions are rather
obvious but need to be recognized and articulated clearly from the
Initial decisions to make include:
• What is the purpose of the Social Activity Group?
• Will your group be affiliated with another organization?
• Will others be recruited to help facilitate/coordinate
• Where will the group meet?
• What is the structure of the group?
• What are the ages of group members?
• What will be the size of the group?
• How will members be recruited?
• What will be the length and time of meetings?
• How often will there be meetings?
• How will the meetings be structured?
• What activities will be planned and who plans
• What will you name the group?
• How will the list of group members and any relevant
information on members be maintained?
• How will members be informed of upcoming meetings
• Will transportation be provided to activities?
• Will individuals be invited to participate regardless
of their ability to pay for some of the activities?
Successful social skills lead to success in many
areas of life. In the past few years there has been a heightened
interest in establishing programs to enhance social skills development
for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Not everyone has
access to a formal social skills training program. Focusing exclusively
on formal social skills training programs will not meet everyone’s
needs. An informal social activity group has potential benefits
for all participants.
In addition to the two groups in Bloomington,
IRCA has had contact with a parent who has facilitated a social
activity group for teens in Greenwood. IRCA also receives meeting
announcements from a social activity group for older teens and adults
that has started meeting again in the Indianapolis area. Please
contact the Indiana Resource Center for Autism if you or if others
you know have an established informal social activity group and/or
are starting to organize one. Others may want to contact you to
find out more and maybe get involved, too!
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
Click here for the full range of Asperger's
and autism fact sheets and personal stories at www.autism-help.org