Active listening is one of the hardest social skills for teens on the spectrum to integrate into their social interactions based on auditory processing difficulties. As they may be easily overstimulated by background noise, tone of voice, and the sound of their own thoughts during conversations, it can be difficult for them to listen closely to what people are saying. This makes it more difficult to respond appropriately and connect with others. Social skill training in group therapy typically focuses on active listening as a foundational social skill before diving into role-playing different social scenarios.
How Does Group Therapy Improve Social Skills?
Many professionals recommend group therapy and social activities as the primary form of treatment for teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. While there is evidence that some individual therapy techniques can help them develop better self-regulation skills and self-awareness, they may continue to feel withdrawn and disengaged in social settings when it is time to apply the skills they’ve learned.
Group therapy introduces some of the difficulties that teens have in social interactions in a supportive environment. Groups are facilitated by licensed therapists that help direct conversation topics, manage the sensory environment, and monitor the group dynamic to ensure that individuals are heard and validated.
In addition to practicing expressing emotions and communicating with others, group therapy also offers ample time to practice active listening skills. Teens on the autism spectrum may be able to launch into a monologue about their special interest, particularly with an interested audience, but they struggle more with the subtleties of taking turns in conversation, not interrupting, and taking other people’s perspectives.
Another benefit of group therapy is that a specialty group typically offers group rules, like one person speaking at a time or coming up with a signal that suggests you’re ready to speak next. As teens on the autism spectrum are often taught social scripts to help them develop social skills, they appreciate the structure of these group settings and have a better understanding of how to engage with others in an appropriate and meaningful way.
Examples of Active Listening Skills Learned Through Group Therapy
Nonverbal Techniques: While some teens on the spectrum may have above average verbal skills, their problems with communication often come from difficulty picking up on and understanding nonverbal cues. More than half of communication happens through facial expressions and tone of voice, while words only make up 7% of communication. Sharing in a group setting may be anxiety-inducing, but as individuals who don’t “have the floor” are expected to remain quiet and reflect on what they are sharing, listeners are better able to scan the environment and take in sensory input. By managing the social environment, teens are better able to notice others’ facial expressions change as a topic elicits different moods, their legs shake with anxiety, or their heads nod in agreement.
Asking Questions: Like many people, teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder are used to listening to others in order to redirect a conversation back to their personal experience as a way to show that they empathize. Sometimes, this is seen as a caring gesture, but sometimes it can take away from the experience of the person sharing. Instead, teens are encouraged to ask their peers open-ended and closed-ended questions to show that they are listening and that they are interested in people’s responses. This helps the group develop stronger connections, as it can help the speaker clarify or expand on what they might be feeling and can help peers get to know each other better.
Reflecting Feelings: Asking questions is just one way to respond and demonstrate active listening. Another important component is being able to take someone else’s position and understand their perspective. Questions help clarify the details of events or feelings that someone may be experiencing. In a group therapy setting, the ultimate goal is to help students identify the underlying emotions that they are experiencing, as teens on the spectrum have a tendency to focus on the concrete. Usually, it is the way they react to an event rather than the event itself that brings up emotional distress. Teaching teens how to use nonverbal cues and questions to understand other people’s emotions prepares them to reflect back the emotions they may be having difficulty expressing. Learning how to validate other people’s emotions, even if they might be different from one’s own, is one of the most invaluable social skills.
Seven Stars Can Help
Seven Stars RTC is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 struggling with Autism-related issues. The program provides acute care stabilization, residential treatment, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, skill-building, and positive psychology. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control.
Contact us at 844-601-1167 for more information about social skills for teens on the spectrum.
Since 2003, Dr. Gordon Day has passionately helped young people with a wide range of family, emotional, social, neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. Gordon’s mission has been to help people find their strengths and their own passion for living a full and rewarding life. He is particularly sensitive to the pressures, frustrations and disappointments that adolescents face that can sometimes cause them and their loved ones to want to withdraw and throw their hands up in despair.
Dr. Day knows that you really have to understand where a student is coming from and understand their patterns of strengths and needs. When we truly know an individual and their struggles, only then can we truly help.
Dr. Day has pioneered the use of outdoor therapy activities and outdoor living as a dynamic and effective therapeutic tool for learning, confidence building and skill building. His programs provide effective, supportive and encouraging environments that help students find their strengths and power.