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This weeks blog comes from Autism East Midlands Adult Services Clinical Team. The team take a look at how a newly developed ‘friendship group’, formed off the back of a request from service users, has helped to improved service users social skills.

Service users from a number of Autism East Midlands services used the Service User Voice Forum to request that the clinical team host a ‘friendship group’ to develop and practice their social skills. On this request we reviewed a number of published social skills programs, including the PEERS Programme (an American social skills intervention) and Socialise (the National Autistic Society’s intervention for social skills). We developed our resources around themes from these interventions and adapted them for adults. The resources that we included in our plan were those that we felt would most benefit the individual service users that were showing interest in the group, so personalising the experience for them and tailoring the resources to their communication needs. The social group that we designed took place at the Sherwood Centre and ran for a 6 week period.

The aim of the social group was to increase opportunities for meaningful social interaction and create a space for the service users to practice their skills and build friendships. We practiced social skills through fun and interactive activities that encouraged them to turn-take and start conversations. Over the 6 weeks, a total of 12 service users took part in the social group from 3 different Autism East Midlands services.

Each social group meeting began with an icebreaker that also used their social skills and highlighted things that they might have in common to encourage friendships. These icebreakers were either related to the topic we would cover or a reflection of what we had covered in the previous week. We used activities based on the current week’s theme to practice social skills and encourage their use. Topics that we discussed over the 6 weeks included teamwork, personal space, sharing interests, the most appropriate methods of social interaction, peer pressure and keeping safe online.

The social group worked really well and the people who accessed the group have said that they enjoyed coming and had “… learnt more about my friends”. The group encouraged us to all think about social rules and when they may or may not apply which generated some interesting discussions. For example, as a rule you would not get into the car with a stranger – but what if that stranger was your taxi driver? After each group we always reflected on what we had spoken about, including what they had enjoyed and what they might want to be different next time (chocolate biscuits!).

More than anything it was important that the group increased opportunities for these adults to make friends between the services, have fun and gain confidence. The service users completed a ‘friendship rating scale’ before and after the social group and this showed us that the service users felt more confident in some of the key areas that we had covered in the group. These areas were different for each service user and with different amounts of self-reported progress. One service user said “I’ve learnt about how I feel, what I like and what I like about others”. Another said “I’ve learnt how to deal with bullying (physically and online), demonstrating what staff commented about the group that “I think each individual took something away from each activity”. Different aspects of the group were useful for different people.

We held a reunion for the group about a month after our last meeting. We went to the pub together for lunch and spent the time catching up and playing some games together.

As a clinical team we really enjoyed working with the service users in the group and getting to know them. This is a project that we would love to continue and increase access to across more of the adult services in Autism East Midlands.