A family of three, mom, dad and teenage son, stand outside in a garden, while the teenage son holds a fluffy gray cat.

Donation expands access to social skills training for children on the autism spectrum

New fund helps families pay for the critical program at the UC Davis MIND Institute

(SACRAMENTO)

Jamie Anderson knows how important social skills training can be for an autistic child.

“I have a 17-year-old son, Nick, who is on the spectrum. He went from barely speaking at age 4 to now being a fully engaged high school student who loves being in the band. A big part of his amazing journey was the social skills intervention that he got when he was younger,” said Anderson, who lives in Davis.

That’s why, when her parents wanted to make a donation to a worthy cause, she suggested the UC Davis MIND Institute’s social skills training group program.

“I know those resources are hard to find and we wanted to do something to support families of kids with autism that don’t have the resources to get these life-changing services,” she said.

Nick’s grandparents, James and Jill Anderson, made a generous donation to create a fund that will help pay for participation for multiple families who can’t afford the program. It’s called the Autism Social Skills Program Support Fund.

“We’re hoping it will be seed money and that other people will also support this need by adding to this fund,” she explained. “And we want families from all different kinds of backgrounds to know that this help is there.”

The gift was made in honor of Jamie, her husband Michael and their son, Nick.

“It gets me teary,” she said, her voice breaking a bit, “but my parents ended up doing it in my son’s name, as well as me and my husband, since it impacts the whole family. Our family is very proud to provide more access to people who wouldn’t have that opportunity.”

Though Nick did not take part in the MIND Institute’s program, he has taken part in numerous research studies at the MIND Institute over the years, including the Cognitive Control in Autism study.

Marjorie Solomon
Every year some [families] are unable to take part. This fund will enable those families to access the program and increase our potential to reach out to underserved communities.” Marjorie Solomon, research director, social skills program

Meeting a need

Nick Anderson, wearing a maroon shirt, smiles while holding a fluffy gray cat in his arms, outside.
Nick Anderson with the family cat, Sapphire

“This has been on our wish list for years and we are so grateful!” exclaimed Marjorie Solomon, research director of the social skills program. “It’s a fee-for-service program. Though some insurance programs cover it, some families do not have adequate funding. Every year some are unable to take part. This fund will enable those families to access the program and increase our potential to reach out to underserved communities.”

Many autistic children and teens face social challenges, such as difficulties making friends or having two-sided interactive conversations. The MIND Institute’s social skills group training program has been teaching practical skills in a group setting since 2001.

What is the social skills group training program?

The comprehensive program includes training groups for both children and parents. Kids and teens are organized by age and meet in groups of 8-15 children at a time. The meetings are led by a licensed psychologist and several adult co-leaders. Parents meet at the same time in a separate group led by a social worker and a psychologist.

“We teach many of the basic skills that are important for social interaction in daily life,” Solomon said. “That includes emotional recognition and awareness – knowing how you feel about things and trying to imagine how others might feel.”

Conversational skills are a big part of the program, too, as those can be challenging for many autistic individuals. “We work with the kids to help them understand that a conversation involves taking interest in what another person is saying, how to gracefully switch topics and how to exit a conversation,” Solomon said.

One key activity involves building a conversation tower, with each person adding a block when they are able to add something to the group conversation using the interaction skills being taught. Other topics include:

  • Dealing with bullies
  • Working as a team
  • Stress management
  • How to recognize who is a friend
  • Social problem recognition
  • Problem solving
  • Making good choices
  • Leadership skills

Sometimes the children and teens break into small groups to practice.

The parent group reviews the day’s curriculum as well as other information about treatments and tips for working with school districts.

The program is currently virtual due to the pandemic, but there are plans to resume in-person classes in the future.

Jamie Anderson
We wanted to do something to support families of kids with autism that don’t have the resources to get these life-changing services.” Jamie Anderson

A life-changing intervention

Solomon notes that she is still in touch with some of the families who took part in the social skills program 20 years ago. She even attended the Eagle Scout ceremony for one of the boys.

“Many families tell us that the program has been a game changer,” Solomon said. “The children also make friends in the groups, and some of those friendships have endured over the years.”

Jamie Anderson can relate. She credits her son’s success in part to similar social skills training that he received.

“I hope it’s an inspiration to people to see that we had a 4-year-old who could barely talk and now he is applying to college in mechanical engineering,” she said. “We always say that his brain is wired differently but he has superpowers. He has so much to give and those social skills are helping him do that. We want other families to have that opportunity as well.” 

Who’s eligible for the program:

  • Must have a diagnosis of autism or clinically significant social cognition problems
  • Children and teens ages 8-17 with difficulties in social situations
  • Must not have aggressive outbursts
  • Must have average verbal abilities

How to sign up: email hs-mindsocialskills@ucdavis.edu

The MIND Institute also offers a social skills training program for adults ages 18-38, called ACCESS. Many graduates of the social skills program also take part in ACCESS.

For more information about how to donate to the Autism Social Skills Program Support Fund, contact Marcus Frost at jmfrost@ucdavis.edu.

The UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento, Calif. was founded in 1998 as a unique interdisciplinary research center where families, community leaders, researchers, clinicians and volunteers work together toward a common goal: researching causes, treatments and potential prevention of challenges associated with neurodevelopmental disabilities. The institute has major research efforts in autism, fragile X syndrome, chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Down syndrome. More information about the institute and its Distinguished Lecturer Series, including previous presentations in this series, is available on the Web at mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu.

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