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Creating Innovative Social Experiences for People on the Spectrum

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Don’t Forget the Fun! 

Creating Innovative Social Experiences for People on the Autism Spectrum

By Sylvia van Meerten

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2011


“But why should I ask him what his name is?” demanded Joseph, “I already know him.”

“We are practicing introductions,” the social group leader explained patiently, “so you can introduce yourself smoothly in real life.”

“Well…” Joseph reasoned, “when is real life?”

Joseph has autism and is legitimately confused about his social group. Like many people on the autism spectrum, Joseph wants friends. He genuinely enjoys people and wants to engage socially. However, his uneven understanding of the social world causes him to do and say things that jeopardize his friendships, or potential friendships. Joseph’s mom, who feels the agony of each and every one of his social blunders, frequently tries to coach him, and they argue about the legitimacy of her suggestions.

Social instruction (for people with and without autism) is sadly limited these days. Many kids are taught social basics, such as polite greetings and leave taking, but more complicated skills like reciprocal conversation (where both people get to talk), and good-natured teasing require high-level social skills and more detailed explanations. Complex social concepts such as differing cultural norms or inter-gender conversation are rarely discussed at all. For people with autism, who need clear social explanations, group settings that demand a set of finely tuned social skills (such as school) can be really distressing, especially because kids are not very forgiving of social errors.

Social Confusion Has Lasting Effects

The repercussions of social confusion can be immense. Many kids with autism recognize that their social desires far outstrip their social abilities and they experience loneliness or become targets for bullying. A disproportionately large number of adults and teens on the autism spectrum suffer from depression, due, in part, to a lack of fulfilling social relationships. As adults, it can be difficult to find and keep employment without strong social skills to guide workplace etiquette (which is different from school etiquette, and restaurant etiquette, and house guest etiquette, and downtime etiquette and…). The social curriculum is massive, and unfortunately, is not organized into clear benchmarks in the same way that academics like math and science are.

Addressing Social Skills in the Community

In a few autism communities around the country, social groups have sprung up in response to the increasingly obvious need for safe social practice and guided group interaction. While many of these social groups originated with the best of intentions, a lot of them have become a let-down. Some groups can be bland or awkward, and many kids shy away from attending simply because they are called a “social group.” Kids with autism aren’t dumb, and many of them know they struggle socially. Let’s be honest: it’s an uncomfortable feeling to be bad at something…for all of us! How many neurotypical adults would merrily skip off to a class called “difficult confrontations” or “budgeting for spenders”? Social groups that meet in sterile therapy settings, have uninspired curriculum, or focus primarily on rote practice are missing the inherent motivator of social interaction: it is supposed to be fun!

All over the country educators and recreation professionals are finding that all kids respond well to experiencing their lessons instead of just hearing or reading about them. This is called experiential learning and it’s a natural fit for many literally-minded people on the spectrum. When we bring the safe, instructional, practice-oriented features of a traditional social group, and combine it with fun activities that people are motivated to do, we can create an experience that people learn from and enjoy. In this way, group members actually want to attend the group, and we do not have to spend so much time convincing them to participate.

Kids who are relaxed and enjoying themselves are also more willing to learn new social skills. Teaching social technique is much easier when kids are already motivated by a social situation, such as a team-work video game, in which teams do better when they communicate clearly and work together. When a group member is motivated by the activity, it puts the instructor in the role of a welcome helper, instead of an unwanted critic. These kinds of groups are actually more fun to facilitate too!

Anyone vested in helping  kids can start an experiential social group for (and with) people on the spectrum. Here is how you can get started:

  1. Make a list of subjects and activities that are of interest to the people with autism in your community. Some timeless classics in our Asheville community: cooking, music, video games, anime, insects, and swimming.
  2. See if you can round up 3-6 people who want to join your “group” or “club”. The title is important—it should be literal and highlight the fun part. Call your friends, post it on Facebook, call a local service provider, or tell your case manager you are looking for group members.
  3. Plan the most fun stuff you can think of in the theme of your group. This fun part cannot be neglected, or participation will drop off.
  4. Set a regular meeting time and place for your group.
  5. Create a schedule of each meeting’s activities, and give it to everyone ahead of time. Include parts of the routine that may seem obvious, like waiting around for everyone to arrive.
  6. Write up a list of group expectations or group rules. Phrase these in the positive, such as “walk on the pool deck” instead of “no running.”). Include social expectations: “we will greet each other when we arrive” or “we will plan one question to ask the other people in the group.”
  7. If you want to include some formalized social instruction, let group members know this ahead of time. Send group members a note explaining that you really care about the way people treat each other, and if you think they can be better friends for each other, you will stop their conversation, show them different ways to communicate, and then let them keep talking. This kind of forewarning decreases (but does not eliminate) the natural frustration people feel when they are interrupted. You may also agree upon a nonverbal signal to use as an advance warning that you’re about to interrupt.
  8. On the first day, quickly review the schedule, go over the expectations, and then get started on the fun.

Do’s and Don’ts for Facilitating Experiential Social Groups


  • Praise a lot. You can praise people’s expertise in a subject, their shoes and clothes, their jokes, and their basic personality. (i.e. “That’s a smart way to think about this!”) Praise builds self esteem and self-esteem is crucial to social confidence and competence.
  • Cultivate a charming blend of casual relaxation, and positivity. Say brief, positive things back to group members when they talk about their favorite subjects (i.e. “Nice! That sounds fun!”). Again, this builds confidence and creates trust and credibility between you and group members.
  • Be flexible! Lesson plans, and group structure may have to change at a moment’s notice. Make a lot of backup plans, and don’t be afraid to let a group take a tangent, as long as everyone is having fun.
  • Have a sense of humor. Funny and weird stuff is going to happen at your group. It will be more fun for everyone if you can see these things in a humorous light.
  • Have compassion for social errors. Social skills are hard! Nobody achieves social competency without getting their feelings hurt (remember middle school?). If we can smoothly forgive social errors and move on, we are investing in the overall confidence of our kids and modeling forgiveness. .
  • Ask people in your groups (preferably in writing) what they like and don’t like about the group. This feedback will help you fine-tune your process and increase participation.


  • Be overly critical of social attempts. The point of the group is to enjoy practicing and being social so group members want to keep doing it. If you jump in all the time to correct, they won’t enjoy their experience and you are back to square one.
  • Refer to the group as a “social group.” Call it a swimming club, or a hiking group, so the focus is on the fun part and the name does not make potential participants anxious or feel the group is focused on “fixing them.”
  • Worry if people aren’t interacting the entire time. The point is to help folks associate having fun with a group activity; it is not to pack as many forced interactions into an hour as you can. Never sacrifice the relaxed, confident feeling people get when they are whole-heartedly accepted. Respect each person’s timing…they will interact based on shared interest and fun, whether that happens immediately or takes a little time.

The main thing to keep in mind when setting up any social program is that social skills are inherently tough to master. Most of us learned the social skills we have as “hidden curriculum” – we learned social customs unconsciously, without anyone having to explicitly teach them. This unconscious learning process means that most people are not used to teaching social skills and social thinking as concrete curriculum, and will probably make social blunders along the way too! That is OK! Our autism community needs safe social spaces, where people can practice and learn…and we need them now. We cannot afford to wait until potential group leaders somehow become perfect teachers before we offer interesting social opportunities to kids on the spectrum. Our kids need to know that life can be fun!


Sylvia van Meerten has worked in the autism field for 11 years, runs a consulting business called Empower Autism, directs the autism overnight program at Dragonfly Forest, and runs a series of activity-based social groups in Asheville, NC. Learn more at www.AutismSocialGroups.org or www.EmpowerAutism.com.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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