Teaching Group Skills
Children with high-functioning autism are often get a diagnosis later because they have fewer symptoms of autism. As a rule, they may not receive timely training. Early recognition and placement in the educational group allows children to have effective experiences with their peers while learning and practicing skills. Life skills training for children, especially in the form of a group, has been widely proposed and implemented by UNICEF and the World Health Organization since 1995.
Group training of emotional, social and cognitive skills in children with Asperger’s and high-performance autism
Children with high-grade autism are often diagnosed later because they have fewer symptoms of autism. As a rule, they may not receive timely training. Early recognition and placement in the educational group allows children to have effective experiences with their peers while learning and practicing skills.
Life skills training for children, especially in the form of a group, has been widely proposed and implemented by UNICEF and the World Health Organization since 1995, and a number of domestic and foreign studies have reported the effectiveness of this type of education. After the research of Taghavi, Pouretemad, Tahmassian and Fati (2008) on the effect of group life skills training program on emotional and social intelligence, design and development of this special educational package for children with Asperger’s and high-performance autism at the Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation were performed. This group training package has been developed with the aim of developing skills according to the special needs of these children and includes three emotional, social and cognitive blocks.
The theoretical and executive context of this training is based on a positive psychological approach and emphasizes the enrichment of children’s obvious and hidden abilities and capacities. In addition to a thorough understanding of the nature of autism and related realities, it is important to pay attention to the growing abilities of a child with autism and to make education enjoyable. The successful experience of these children in developing skills and enjoying participation and interaction with peers opens the door to hope for the family and the education and treatment team.
In this group training, most educators emphasize behavioral encouragement. In the meeting encouragement system, the star chart is used, and at the end of the class, children receive prizes according to the number of stars earned.
Indirect education helps the child to learn, discover and practice in a pleasant and relatively free environment.
The techniques and methods of art therapy, which are used during group work, are selected according to the educational purpose of each activity and the ability to be performed in a particular group. The executive methods in this group training package include games, storytelling, drama, music, painting and coloring, working with dough and flowers, collages, creative crafts, and so on.
The process of presenting and practicing activities is such that it progresses gradually from simple and easy activities to more complex and difficult activities. Learning in the early stages is mostly done by children using objective and observable tools, and during the sessions, this learning also tends to be abstract.
To connect children more with group activities and get their attention more closely, symbolic images taken from the PECS method are used to introduce the program of each session. An important benefit of using these images is that children practice regular schedules and sequences in the classroom. In other words, children realize that each activity takes place over a period of time, and that the activity will focus on the next task.
In order to relatively coordinate the members of each group and assess the level of ability and skill, among children with high-functioning autism, evaluation and general assessment are performed so that children are in their appropriate groups and benefit more from interaction with the group.
Three stages of group training include emotional, social, and cognitive skills development, respectively. Attention to sensory-motor and verbal skills are also some of the goals that are addressed during the programs. Although these skills overlap, tracking them in separate blocks will lead to deeper learning.
- Emotional block: At this stage, while introducing children to the group space and communicating with the members, the important emotions that the child deals with in daily life are taught. Happiness, sadness, fear, embarrassment and anger are among these emotions.
- Social block: Learning social rules, establishing proper communication, taking turns, interaction and giving, , participating and collaborating in a group, paying attention to others, and so on are important goals at this stage. The emotions learned in the previous block are also considered in the form of socially applied situations.
- Cognitive block: The cognitive and intellectual problems of children with autism are considered in three basic areas: Theory of Mind, Executive Function, and Central Coherence.
To further align the family, the goals and activities of each session are also explained to the parents.
These blocks are preferably presented to children after the individual training course in order to prepare them for school. Of course, for those children who have entered the school without passing these courses and have serious problems in social relations, participating in these courses can be useful.
Group training of emotional, social and cognitive skills in children with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism “Block One: Emotional Skills”
The skill, understanding, and expression of emotions can be traced back to the first months of life. Through emotions, the baby understands the world around him and also expresses his inner experiences to others and the environment. Research shows that people with autism have significant problems with emotional skills.
Defects in the perception and detection of emotions in children with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism cause problems in social relationships and cognitive domains. If a child is unable to properly recognize or express their inner emotions properly, they will have serious difficulty expressing their desires and circumstances. This weakness, in turn, creates many problems in social interactions and communication with others.
In addition to recognizing and expressing your emotions, the key to communicating with others is to understand their emotions, thoughts, and circumstances. In autism spectrum disorders, there is a cognitive problem called Theory of Mind, which prevents the child from distinguishing his or her point of view from others.
This is related to not understanding people’s facial expressions and their verbal and nonverbal messages. Due to this, the reactions that the child shows to others are not appropriate. A child who does not understand the feelings and circumstances of others will probably not have the right “empathy” and in cases where it requires a reaction related to the situation, the child would react neutrally to it. On the other hand, he may engage in unhealthy behaviors regardless of social distances (closeness or distance, family relationship, or acquaintance, or friendship). For example, the type of treatment and embrace of mother and father with strangers should not be different for him.
According to Taghavi, Bagherian, Pouretemad and Shafiee’s research, group training of emotional skills in children with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism can improve the cognition and emotional perception in them, and this will also enhance the behaviors and reactions of children in social interactions.
Group education helps the child to have more in-depth and practical familiarity with the concept of emotion, to have practical experiences with peers and under the supervision of educators. Given that emotional skills are widely associated with social and cognitive domains, emotional education is a prerequisite for other skills and is considered in the first group education block.
Interest in the classroom and other members is one of the important pillars that encourage the child to attend these meetings. If the child feels happy and relaxed in the meeting space, learning will be better and more effective. Therefore, in the initial group training sessions, the excitement of “happiness” is given priority, and programs are designed to reduce children’s resistance and create a safe and happy atmosphere. Due to the executive format of this educational package, which is the use of art therapy methods (refer to the group training brochure of emotional, social and cognitive skills), enjoyable activities based on creative art are provided to children. Games, paintings, crafts, music, collages, stories and plays are fun performances for children in these sessions, which include educational and scientific purposes.
The main emphasis of this program is on encouraging children and helping their talents to flourish, and in this regard, encouraging stars and awards are used appropriately.
Important emotions that arise during this period include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, embarrassment, surprise, and boredom, as well as a neutral concept. The learning process begins with recognizing emotions in images and then practicing expressing emotions and understanding the faces of others with the help of educational patterns. This cognition is complemented by the perception of emotional content in different stories and situations. After getting acquainted with the concept of emotions and recognizing them in oneself and others, the expression of emotions and appropriate reactions and behaviors are considered. Emotional management skills require understanding of the situation and performing appropriate behaviors that require proper understanding and continuous practice. In many cases, emotion regulation and management are also associated with problem-solving ability, which is considered in group training in all blocks.
After getting acquainted with emotions and recognizing them in different fields, the child will become more familiar with social distances and the appropriate amount of emotion and excitement in different situations in the form of games and plays. Social distances from close relationships with family members to relationships with friends, educators, neighbors, family, and more distant relationships with strangers are examined.
Emotional group training is a good introduction to learning effective interactions and participation and considering rules in the social block. A summary of the educational principles, goals of the sessions, and teaching methods in each session are also provided to parents so that this educational experience can be carried out in harmony with the educational sessions in the family.