Brock researchers help autistic youth develop communication and social skills

Puzzle ribbon. Autism awareness symbol.

Non-stop talking about a particular topic. Requests made in a loud, demanding voice, sometimes culminating in “meltdowns.” Staring off into space, seemingly uninterested in what’s going on. Stomping off when someone else wins at a game.

Children and adolescents living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) find it challenging to communicate with others, form friendships and to relate to people in general.

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines ASD as being a “developmental disability” that affects one in every 68 children.

Experts say there is no single “cause” of autism, with genetic, biological and environmental factors believed to play a role. Certain areas of the brain —  including the corpus callosum (enabling communication between the two hemispheres of the brain), the amygdala (affecting emotion and social behaviour) and the cerebellum (regulating motor ability, balance and co-ordination) — have been found to have irregularities in people living with autism.

“People with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people,” says the CDC. “The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged.”

Several Brock University researchers study – and put together – programs to enable autistic children and youth to develop communication and social skills.

Rebecca Ward, Assistant Professor and clinical co-ordinator of the Centre for Applied Disability Studies, created a course called My Life as an Epic Win, where she teaches teens and young adults with ASD the skills needed to succeed in the transition to adulthood, such as listening, goal setting, social problem-solving, and being a team player.

Ward has also been involved in evaluation of the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) program, which teaches teens how to develop and maintain friendships.

Much of the groundwork for effective adult communication starts in an inclusive classroom setting, where children living with autism learn side-by-side with other children, says Kimberly Maich, professor in the Department of Teacher Education.

“As educators, we need to spend time teaching everybody in the classroom how to be a friend,” she says.

“So, it’s not always the adult going to the child with ASD but it’s prompting those peers to say to the child with ASD, ‘Hey, why don’t you try and do this, or try that’. When you do that, you’re increasing the number of social opportunities that child has to practise those skills.”

Sports are another great way to teach social skills, says Maureen Connolly, Professor in the Department of Kinesiology. Connolly created and runs three movement programs for children and young people living with ASD, including the SNAP program and the ASD Movement Program.

“We typically have more than one of them at an activity station at a time,” she explains, “so they have to tolerate parallel play. They might even cooperate and nod at one another.”

Connolly says children and young people with ASD actually do have a wide range of ways they communicate their thoughts and feelings.

“The problem is that we’re not recognizing it,” she says. “We need to be trained in expanding what counts as functional communication. If we’re not recognizing it as functional or communicative, and dismissing it as just purposeless when they’re actually trying to be social, then who’s got the problem?”

Maureen Connolly, Kimberly Maich and Rebecca Ward delve into this topic deeper in their audio and video podcasts Social skills development for children and adolescents living with ASD.

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3 comments on “Brock researchers help autistic youth develop communication and social skills”

  1. Chris Capredoni says:

    Dear Ladies:
    This is an area very close to my heart. My youngest son, Adam, has ASD. As President of the Hamilton-Wentworth Chapter of Autism Ontario, I make myself available to contribute to any studies/research and offer my years of hands on experience to the expansion of ASD knowledge.
    If you require my input please feel free to contact me.

    Chris Capredoni
    Brock University Alumni Association

  2. Johannes Wesley Ladage says:

    While this is all well and good (I mean that seriously: early development is crucial for those on the Spectrum), I am left wondering if the research ends after adolescence, since it only makes mention of “childhood and adolescence”.

    Speaking as an adult with ASD, I often find myself frustrated about the lack of research or support that goes into assistance for adults with ASD. If you’re high-functioning (Asperger’s for instance), I’ve found that you are pretty much out of luck trying to find a specialist to work with.

    That the only profressor (that admittedly, I could find) dealing with Autism as a subject material at Brock seems to be located in the Child and Youth Studies department, is telling.

    Now, disclaimer: given my own neurology, this post is somewhat self-serving…and the advances made for those on the lower ends of the spectrum (we really need a better term to distinguish these, I feel like a bit uncomfortable every-time I say “low” or “high”) in recent years, are incredible and exciting. The case of Carly Fleischmann in TO being a case of particular note, since it has shown that those who have more communication and self-regulation issues associated with their neurology can actually attend and excel in a University environment.

    My only gripe is that there seems to be a blindspot. While some of the issues facing those on the (sigh, again) lower end of the spectrum are also shared with those on the (triple sigh) higher end, there are some major differences and additional issues we face that really don’t get the same coverage or attention. Especially since a lot of the time, our intricacies are less immediately noticeable or visible.

    And the research into how one deals with this and navigating adulthood are exceedingly sparse. The reasoning behind this might have something to do with the outcry from concerned and beleaguered parents (which is understandable), or perhaps just a lack of academic interest…I can’t really say for certain.

    All I know is that when I had to do a paper last year on correlation between web culture and those with Autism, I found the situation that I and many others find themselves in (high-functioning non-child/teen) was massively underrepresented in the academic available materiel concerning Autism…which induced anxiety, frustration, anger, depression and rants far longer and more verbose then this one.

    Granted, all five of those things (especially the ranting) tend to occur anyways, as anyone with any experience with Asperger’s can relate.

  3. Rick Welland says:

    A response to Johannes Ladage’s comments of October 23, 2014:

    Although there is some research on the social communication and executive function needs of adults on the ASD spectrum, one needs for the most part to look beyond Brock University and the Niagara Region to find it. Nevertheless, Olivia Meriano, an Honours thesis student of mine, last year conducted an interesting study on the effect of improvisation training on social communication among adults on the ASD spectrum.

    As a pilot study, Olivia’s research project was not designed to answer all of the questions that one might have about this approach. There was, for example, no control group (even of similar adults with ASD on a waiting list), only pre- and post-test measures and session-by-session questionnaire responses. Yet, her research contributes to the literature on communication skills among adults on the ASD spectrum because it demonstrated that many of her participants benefitted from their involvement in the program. Additional research on improvisation will, I hope, be forthcoming.

    My own research (as an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics) is concerned with the communication and executive function needs of adults who have neurologically-based conditions, diseases, and disorders. I am particularly interested in social communication problems, such as those experienced by people with traumatic brain injury (TBI), so would be most interested in learning more about the issues that concern adults who function at the “higher” end of the ASD spectrum. I would imagine that they are in some ways similar and in other ways dissimilar from the social communication and executive function issues that concern adults with TBI.

    If interested, you may contact me via e-mail at