UCSB Study Focuses on Helping Autistic Students Improve Social Skills

Researchers with the Koegel Autism Center found that structured planning made a difference in the lives of participants


Lynn and Robert Koegel, the namesakes of UCSB’s Koegel Autism Center, are set to publish a study focused on improving socialization for college students on the autism spectrum. The walls of the autism center are covered with paintings created by former student Kevin Hosseini. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

By Gina Potthoff, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @ginapotthoff | Published on 08.28.2013 8:52 p.m.

Leaving home for college can be a shock for many students, all looking to make friends, pass classes and become a part of something they care about.

The transition can be especially jarring to those who are autistic and might not understand all the social cues and behaviors of their peers.

A new study at UC Santa Barbara’s Koegel Autism Center provides insight into how those students can become more socially involved at school and, as a result, happier in general.

The cutting-edge research soon will be published in the Psychology in the Schools journal as a guide for other researchers and doctors who are preparing to help an influx in the number of youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders who are transitioning into adulthood.

Lynn and Robert Koegel, who are the namesakes of UCSB’s center, were two of several researchers involved in the 33-week study of three UCSB students in their early 20s.

Robert Koegel refers to the study as a “treatment and evaluation” for the students, who were having difficulty engaging in social activities or events — a core symptom of autism — and had become slightly depressed.

“Pretty much their whole lives are falling apart,” he said. “If you’re socially isolated, that’s a big problem.”

The study, which was conducted two years ago, used a multiple-baseline design to evaluate the effectiveness of structured social planning. 

Students attended weekly sessions to talk about their interests, social planning and to receive feedback regarding their participation in activities.

They picked at least one social event to attend per week — ballroom dancing class, athletic events, fencing and other university clubs — and had the option of choosing a peer mentor with knowledge of their needs to attend with them.

“All of them chose to have a supportive person,” Lynn Koegel said.

Each study participant reported attending more events and saw positives in other areas, such as increases in nonstructured social interactions, better grades and employment.

“They ended up making friends and maybe dating people with similar interests,” Lynn Koegel said. “It really made a difference in their lives.”

The results were especially encouraging because students were able to use existing university resources to show improvement and not rely on funding, she said — no more sitting at home on the computer playing video games or unhealthy, sporadic sleeping habits.

The Koegels have been traveling the world to spread word of work done at the university center, which caters annually to about 100 students from infancy to those in their 60s.

The couple are hopeful that their latest study, tentatively titled “Increasing Socialization in College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” will have impact on autistic youth everywhere who have specialized interests and could use a confidence boost.

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