What Exactly is a Social Group for Children with Autism?

We interviewed Latha V. Soorya, PhD from the Rush University Medical Center to learn about the study of social skills groups for children with autism.

Many children with autism are working toward learning, building and strengthening their social skills. The Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment and Services Center (AARTS Center) at Rush University Medical Center has dedicated their mission to on-going research in hopes to find new interventions to help those with autism. Latha V. Soorya, PhD explains and answers some questions regarding their newest study on social skills and the use of Oxytocin. early autism

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in social bonding and connections. Social skills groups for children with autism are widely used and well-liked. The Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment, and Services Center at Rush is studying both of these treatments to better understand how to improve social connections in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We are looking for 8-11 year old children with ASD to participate in a unique study called ION: Integrated Oxytocin and NETT (Nonverbal synchrony, Emotion recognition, and Theory of mind Training).

What is the benefit for parents? Families will receive support from therapists and other parents during parent groups that run at the same time as the social skills groups. Qualifying families will receive evaluations and treatment from licensed psychologists, child-psychiatrists, and therapists at no-cost as part of their participation in the social skills research study. The AARTS Center has run the social thinking group in the past, and a parent shared their positive feedback with us, saying, “We liked connecting with other parents during parent group and still use the materials from group to help our son focus on other people’s thoughts and feelings.”

How can parents & clinicians use the results? Before the study is published, families will receive results from their child’s evaluations as well as information about their progress. After publication, the AARTS center will share results with participating families, community partners, and the academic/medical community. Our hope is that the ION study will target social skills development in a new way, and that parents and clinicians will see lasting changes in the way that children with ASD apply these skills across settings.

Has similar research been done in the field? This is a unique study that combines promising research from two fields. Intranasal oxytocin may increase attention to social cues (e.g. where someone is looking) and social skills groups are well-liked and may help improve some aspects of social behavior. However, research also shows that changes from social skills groups, as well as intranasal oxytocin, do not last very long. This study is the first to examine what happens when the two treatments are combined.

What are you most excited about exploring in this study? We are most excited about this study’s potential to develop a more powerful, longer-lasting treatment for critical social thinking skills—skills we know are critical to navigating many life experiences and building social relationships.

Latha V. Soorya, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center. Soorya serves as the research director at the AARTS Center at Rush and brings expertise in diagnosis and intervention development to the research program.

For more information on the study, please contact Anthony Burns at 312-942-6331 or email Anthony_burns@rush.edu.

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