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ABLS Teaches Children with Autism How to Build Social Skills

Ever wondered why some people are just loved despite being rude and mean and then some kind people are just not liked? Dr. Mariela Vargas-Irwin, Executive Director of Applied Behavior Learning Services (ABLS), has always been intrigued by social skills, inclusion, and executive behavior.

We know some variables predict social attraction and rejection; people who have similar characteristics tend to like each other. Yet, Dr. Vargas-Irwin further states, "Time and again, I find that sometimes perfectly matched peers do not click. We would assume that their social behavior has something to do with this."

Dr. Vargas-Irwin founded ABLS back in 2002, with the primary goal of providing evidence-based clinical services to children with Autism, ADHD, and other Disruptive Behavior Disorders. The organization developed a social skills program after observing that there is a lack of structure and many unwritten rules when it comes to real-life social gatherings. People with Autism struggle to navigate these complex situations on their own.

The ABLS program mirrors the actual social situation by providing a combination of guidance and free choice. Social skills clubs are typically 2-3 hours long in order to build social stamina and observe what actually happens in real life, as play dates and other social opportunities tend to have that same duration. "We teach a wide range of skills. The basic one is joint attention, which may involve eye contact and the shared enjoyment of social experience that we can all recognize when we see but yet we struggle to operationally define," shares this licensed Psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Another essential aspect of social clubs at ABLS is the focus on expanding the attention span of children. At ABLS, they not only work on expanding children's attention span with developmentally appropriate games and activities but also ensure that they spend time with other children as opposed to engaging in solitary pursuits.

Moreover, ABLS recognizes the transformative power of experiential learning. By incorporating theatrical productions like their recent play ‘Tacos In The Jungle' into their curriculum, children are exposed to diverse social scenarios including tolerating textures through costumes and engaging in choreography for physical exercise and social reciprocity. Then the children apply all these skills in a real-life production in front of their parents. From following group instructions to mastering choreography, these activities serve as catalysts for growth and self-expression in natural situations. "Social skills are not innate; they're learned behaviors," says Dr. Vargas-Irwin. "Through a combination of structured lessons, differential reinforcement, experiential learning, and role-play, we equip children with the tools they need to establish meaningful connections in real situations."

At ABLS, children learn social skills through lessons, video modeling, and role-plays. They practice these skills daily, starting with greetings and small talk questions. After completing a non-favored activity, the ‘Must Do', they engage in a general social skills lesson. After the lesson, they have a choice of time to play in the gym, go outside, cook, play with Legos, turn-taking games, or engage in imaginative play with toys. Dr. Vargas-Irwin shares, "So now children are playing Big Bad Wolf, after reading the story of The Little Red Riding Hood. These methodologies help in complex social situations such as sports, plays, and at birthday parties when you have to use all these skills together and there are many unwritten rules."

Integrating emotional regulation strategies into daily practice is central to the ABLS' ethos. Using the TACO acronym - Take three deep breaths, Ask for help, Choose calm words, Overcome obstacles, children learn to navigate conflicts and express their needs assertively but respectfully.

Children are greeted with structured expectations, reinforcing fundamental social norms such as exchanging greetings and engaging in small talk when they arrive at the center. These interactions provide invaluable opportunities for practice and refinement of essential communication skills. From indoor gym sessions to outdoor play and imaginative toy exploration, each activity is carefully curated to promote social growth and development.

After structured lessons, children are encouraged to apply learned skills in natural environments, reinforcing generalization and adaptability. Every interaction, from participating in conversations to sharing toys and resolving conflicts, allows them to generalize the skills learned.

Through its systematic behavior analytic approach, ABLS empowers children to navigate complex social scenarios with confidence and resilience. With each milestone achieved, children move closer to realizing their full potential and embracing a future enriched by meaningful connections and opportunities for friendship.

For more information contact: Mariela-Vargas-Irwin by Prodigy Press, published in "Benzinga" on April 5, 2024


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