The recent explosion of social pragmatics curricula and materials for students with social challenges like autism spectrum disorder is both a blessing and a curse to those of us SLPs who work in private practice or outpatient settings. On the one hand, I am grateful for the selection of topics and target goals. On the other hand, how can we best weed through it all and offer a group curriculum that is the most functional and change-inspiring for this tricky but very deserving population of pre-adolescents?
There are many benefits of conducting groups outside the school environment in an outpatient setting, including more time spent on concepts, practice in a “safe” and diverse environment (participants may not have to see each other again), making new friends (participants may like to see each other again), parent/caregiver education and training, and parent/caregiver networking opportunities.
Along with the benefits, there are challenges that are unique for private practice and outpatient SLPs as we try to help these children and their families. These challenges can be grouped into two categories: logistical and content-related.
Logistics are tricky, but are definitely the easiest barriers to overcome. A typical group series for outpatient settings lasts 8 weeks. Group sessions range from 1-2 hours, depending on the number of participants. Costs to families for each session can be substantial, despite the Health Care Affordability Act, whether it be insurance co-pays or out-of-pocket. And there are also transportation costs and challenges for families who live in rural areas. These barriers mostly belong to the families of our group participants, but SLPs can help reduce their impact by strategies such as offering the group at “family-friendly” times (evenings or Saturdays), as well as choosing a central location for the meetings.
Once logistics are met, the real work begins. This brings me to the content of this post: content-related challenges. As a former instructional designer and journalist, my foremost consideration is “know my audience.” It may be a funny way to initially think about a therapy group, but it’s a basic tenant that I find critical.
Unlike the school setting where therapists can get to know the child in their “natural environment,” outpatient SLPs must somehow determine which kids can best go together in groups. Finding the right fit may sound like a logistical challenge, but is actually content-based.
From experience, placing the right kids together can make or break the success of the group, particularly at the tween/middle school age. Knowing this however, is only the beginning of the solution. My colleagues and I have whittled out three main areas of need for this age group:
- Basic Social Rules—skills associated with being with another or group, such as eye contact, body language, expected behaviors, thinking about others.
- Conversation Rules—skills associated with communication with another or group, such as establishing a topic, asking and answering questions, staying on or switching topics, social wondering.
- Higher-level Social Skills—skills associated with making others comfortable and making/keeping friends, such as social problem-solving and perspective-taking.
Regardless of diagnosis or age, these three areas seem to be a good way to group kids so that behaviors can be managed equally and everyone learns. I have tried pragmatic assessments such as the CELF-5 Pragmatics subtest. I have given self-made parent/caregiver surveys of functional skills that coincide with the teaching concepts of the group. I have given their referring SLPs surveys of functional skills. Sometimes I have used all three methods. So far, I have not found a combination that can qualify everyone accurately. In every group, there always seems to be at least one kid whose skills are significantly more advanced or significantly more impaired than the rest.
The question is this: How can we most effectively figure out where each child fits? How do we qualify a child for the right group when the reality is that most of our candidates demonstrate a constellation of challenges across two or all of these areas?
That is the question I am posing to this ASHAsphere community. Thank you in advance for your responses as we problem-solve together.
Lisa Lucas, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist in Cincinnati, Ohio. She practices as an outpatient SLP for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and as a telepractice SLP for Presence Learning. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 18, Telepractice.