Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects individuals across the lifespan. There is an ever-expanding body of research working towards better understanding the disorder and evaluating potential treatments. In particular, researchers often strive to identify early intervention strategies to help young children and their families when the first signs of the disorder emerge. Yet, there are also many adults living with autism who can benefit from intervention and skills training.
Treatment for autism often includes a focus on developing social skills and improving social understanding. In a recent pilot study, researchers used a virtual learning behavioral intervention to teach social skills to young adults with high-functioning autism. During several weeks of sessions, the participants engaged virtually with a clinician to practice participating in social situations. The clinician gave real-time feedback and provided opportunities for repetition and skills practice. Results showed that participating in the skills training sessions contributed to improved empathy and social cognition.
However, not only did this intervention improve social skills, it also correlated with brain changes. The increases in social skills correlated with brain changes in the regions known to be responsible for social-emotional processing and empathy. This finding is particularly exciting because, in contrast to the rapidly developing brains of young children, we often don’t think of adult brains as being as malleable and responsive to intervention. These research results suggest that, even in adulthood, social skills training can make a meaningful impact for individuals with autism. The possibility of providing virtual skills training could also make treatment more accessible for a wider group of individuals.
Adults with autism can also improve social skills through in-person sessions with a trained therapist or through participation in social skills groups. Further information can be accessed through the resources below.
Autism Speaks (includes a toolkit for adults recently diagnosed with Autism)
Autism Fact Sheet from the NIH