Recently, Spectrum news (a website that publishes news regarding the latest research on autism spectrum disorders) published this article written by Rene Jamison who runs a social skills program for young women on the autism spectrum called "Girls Night Out." In this article, Jamison stresses that autistic girls need help navigating social rules in more real world settings. As an autistic female who's had some form of a social skills intervention similar to the program being discussed, I find Jamison's article and her underlying argument very problematic and ableist. I do agree with the title of autistic people needing more real world experiences to practice social skills. It is her solutions that I disagree with. She proposes the age old idea that autistic females need to learn to socialize like their NT female peers in order to have successful lives. I find this very destructive on a psychological level because it indirectly tells autistic people that the way they socialize is the problem instead of the rigid social expectations and categorizations put forth by a neurotypical society. In this post, I am going to explain why I find Jamison's position problematic from an autistic's perspective.
The problem with a lot of the current social skills interventions especially the ones built for autistic females is that there tends to be a push of "gender" or "age" appropriate interests. Upon further research of the curriculum of the "Girls Night Out" program that is proposed in this article, one of the topics covered is "fashion" and "makeup" which are both stereotypically feminine activities. When I was an adolescent, my behaviorist and I along with one other girl on the spectrum did outings to the mall to female clothing stores and other activities which is a considered to be a "real life setting" in learning teen culture. This exposure made me temporarily traded my interests of Hello kitty and Disney Princess for fashion and designer clothing so I can fit in with my female peers. Looking back as a young adult, it was a painful process of letting those interests go during high school and it contributed to long term feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and low self esteem. To this day, I am still dealing with these negative emotions surrounding my love of "little girl" characters such as Frozen, Hello Kitty etc. Neurotypical teens aren't told what to like or are given didactic teaching lessons on fashion and makeup. In fact not all NT girls are into fashion and makeup. This is the point that I think is missed in Jamison's article.
Another issue that I have with Jamison's intervention and others like it is the need to get autistics to feel comfortable socializing in a group or what is known as a "peer group." As an autistic female who is more introverted and has sensory processing issues, the idea of being in a unstructured social group was a hellhole for me. In high school, I was made to join clubs as well as sit with a group of same aged peers. I felt so overwhelmed with the numerous conversations that were going on at the same time that I didn't know when to join in. I also feel that in groups, you don't get to know people on a more intimate level as well as them not getting to know me. This is why I preferred one-to-one social situations as opposed to group settings because aside from getting to know people on a more intimate level, you get the individual attention and it's a lot easier to socially manage from a sensory perspective. To sum this paragraph, some people on the spectrum (just like in the general population) are introverts, and they shouldn't be forced to socialize in a group setting if they don't feel comfortable.
Perhaps, the biggest problematic element of Jamison's article, is that I felt she used the article to promote her "Girls Night Out" program. In that sense, I feel there is a personal bias as well as self interest from the author in writing this article. I always get suspicious (as well as cringe) whenever a clinician writes an article on a website/platform that highlights our "deficits" in order to promote their program or therapy. The underlying theme of these articles is that autistic people won't have a good future unless they participate in the program or therapy. It is this very message that is very damaging as an autistic person. She also contradicts herself towards the end of the article by stating that the long term effects of her social skills program is unknown. On the plus side, at least she admitted this shortcoming of her program. As an adult autistic advocate who's been through social skills training, I can provide my insight that these interventions are part of the reason of long term issues with anxiety and insecurity. It is bad science that a research based website such as spectrum would allow a clinician to promote her program on their site.
In sum, I feel that Jamison's article though well meaning, is reiterating (in a different way) the viewpoint that autistic people are the ones that need to conform to a NT level and that we need "peer coaches" to help us learn teenage trends. It overlooks the fact that a lot of autistic females spend most of their young lives trying to emulate their typical peers to the point of exhaustion. This is the reason for the high levels of anxiety and depression in autistic females. As I stated at the beginning of this article, I do agree with Jamison that autistic people of both genders need more real world experiences to practice their social skills. This is why I hired a social companion/mentor to go on outings in the community to get that real world experience in practicing my social skills. However unlike traditional social skills groups, this type of intervention is relationship based on respect and there is no pressure to like things that are gender or age appropriate. In fact my mentor is working with me on my self confidence about being comfortable with my unconventional interests. Having a companion to do social outings was what worked for me but Jamison's intervention could work for some girls on the spectrum. Autistic girls are not monolithic in which one type of intervention would be effective for all of them. They are complex human beings with varying interests, challenges, goals and talents etc. just like typical girls. If we truly want to come up with more effective interventions that actually help autistic people, researchers need to consult with autistic people as well as individualizing supports for people on the spectrum.