The fourth guideline is particularly relevant to center-based tasks designed to teach communication and social skills to adults with autism. It also is directed at tasks intended to promote an individual’s use of existing communication and social skills during daily interactions. Most adults with autism in center-based programs can benefit from tasks that improve their skills in interacting with others. Hence, these types of tasks can be very meaningful. However, many of the communication and social tasks that are implemented in center-based programs leave much to be desired.

The primary concern with these tasks is that they often involve activities and materials that do not address skills that would truly help an adult with autism functionally communicate or engage in likely social interactions outside of the center. In some cases, the social activity in which center participants are expected to engage is the main concern. An example is an early morning start-up routine in some centers in which participants are prompted to participate in the activity of “If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands” by singing and clapping their hands. It would be very unlikely that the participants would ever do this activity outside of the center (nor would it be common for other adults to engage in that activity).

In other cases, the materials are of concern in that they would not be used very often, if at all, by adults with autism in social situations outside of a center. An example is the task of teaching an adult with autism to identify emotions as represented by the facial expressions of pictures of stick-figure or cartoon characters. Recognizing apparent emotions as reflected by facial expressions is an important social skill. However, in everyday life such skills involve identifying expressions of other people during social encounters, not stick-figure or cartoon characters.

In the introductory comments to this manual, we emphasized that a primary focus of supports and services in the adult sector is supporting individuals to function adaptively and enjoyably in their current life situations. This focus is especially relevant with communication and social skills. The most meaningful skills in this area are those that enable an adult with autism to communicate and engage in interpersonal interactions that represent social situations in their current day- to-day lives. The meaningful guideline addresses this issue in two respects. First, if an individual would use a particular skill on at least a weekly basis, then it would likely represent a currently needed skill. Second, if applying the skill would not be unusual for adults in general to do on a weekly basis then it also represents something that an adult with autism probably would have opportunities to do as part of everyday life. Illustrations of how this guideline can be used to distinguish nonmeaningful versus meaningful communication and social tasks in center-based programs are provided in the following examples.

Examples of Nonmeaningful and Meaningful Communication and Social Tasks in Center-Based Programs

Nonmeaningful: tickling a staff person or being tickled by a staff person Meaningful: giving or receiving a “high five” or “fist bump”

Nonmeaningful: a staff person talking to a woman like a child (e.g., “You have been such a good girl today”)

Meaningful: a staff person talking to a woman like an adult (e.g., “You did a nice job today”)

Nonmeaningful: instructing a participant to point to different greeting phrases written on a piece of paper

Meaningful: practicing saying or waving “Hi” when passing by people in the center hallway

Nonmeaningful: asking a participant what he should say when someone gives him something

Meaningful: helping the participant say “Thank you” when actually given something

Successfully applying the meaningful guideline for communication and social tasks requires close scrutiny of what the tasks require adults with autism to actually do. What they are instructed or otherwise supported to do should be what they would routinely do in a social context outside of the center. For example, with the task noted in the box of instructing a participant to point to different greeting phrases written on a piece of paper (i.e., as a center-based activity to teach greeting skills), this would not meet the guideline because the individual would not likely point to written greetings in any situation outside the center nor would other adults. In contrast, supporting an individual to practice saying or waving “Hi” when passing someone in a hallway is something the individual could do on at least a weekly basis outside of the center as do other adults. Similarly, with another example in the box, an individual responding to the question of what do you say when someone gives you something does not represent what the person or other adults would actually do in typical social situations—adults usually are not presented with that type of question. However, supporting the person in actually saying “Thank you” when given something by someone would represent a frequent social interaction outside of a center situation.

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