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Social Lives and Teens with Autism

This is a blog post by Lisa Goring, Autism Speaks Vice President, Family Services.

A recent research study funded by Autism Speaks reached a conclusion that probably would surprise few in our community: Teens with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often face major obstacles to social life outside the classroom. Given that one of the hallmark features of autism is impaired social interaction, it’s not hard to imagine why teens on the spectrum typically have difficulty making friends and participating in social activities, especially outside of school.

Unfortunately, social challenges are often considered the norm for kids growing up with autism. But this needs to change. The good news is that change is underway. Innovative approaches – ranging from group golf lessons to Girls Night Out – have been launched across the United States with the support of Family Services Community Grants from Autism Speaks. Their goal is to improve the socialization skills of teens and young adults with autism.

The research study was originally funded by Autism Speaks as a Pilot Grant in 2010 and then published in the November 2011 issue of PLoS One by a team led by Paul T. Shattuck, Ph.D., of Washington University, in St. Louis. The study analyzed data collected from a large number of adolescent students with autism enrolled in special education.

When compared to students with other special education needs, such as learning disabilities, mental retardation* and speech-language impairment, teens on the spectrum are significantly less likely to see friends out of school (43.3 percent), never to get called by friends (54.4 percent) and never to be invited to social activities (50.4 percent).

Empirical data such as the information from this study helps drive awareness and decision making. Based on these results, we now know with more certainty that many adolescents with ASD struggle to fit in with their peers. Backed with facts and figures, we can advocate for additional services and supports, target our research toward social skills interventions, develop better policies, and, ultimately, create more and better services and programs.

In this case, the research reaffirms the need for initiatives such as the Family Services Community Grant program that Autism Speaks created five years ago with two goals in mind: 1) to build the field of services for individuals with autism and 2) to expand the capacity to effectively serve this growing community. In addition, a Transition Tool Kit was created and launched last year to help guide the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Both cases demonstrate how Autism Speaks is providing solutions to help families address real challenges identified or documented through research.

The Community Grants [JSS1] are designed to meet needs in education, recreation and community activities, and specifically [JSS2] young adult and adult programs. Among the elements that go into a successful proposal are innovation and the ability to be replicated elsewhere.

To date, Autism Speaks has funded 193 community grants totaling almost $4.0 million across North America. A sampling of recent grant awards demonstrates how community initiatives across the country are addressing the need for social activities targeted to teens and young adults. Here are a few examples:

  • Several suburban school districts outside of Philadelphia banded together to organize “Acting Antics,” a program using live theater as a way to teach social cognition skills. Student actors perform in short scenes with a partner, each assuming the persona of a particular character. The exercise requires each student to consider the character’s perspective, creating an opportunity to teach this skill in a fun and non-threatening manner. The Autism Speaks grant will be used to expand the program to other school districts.
  • In Kansas City, a Girls Night Out program was established through the University of Kansas to build social competence and self-care skills for teen girls on the autism spectrum. The sessions take place in community settings such as a hair salon, coffee shop and gym. The community grant from Autism Speaks will be used to provide opportunities for girls with ASD to interact with typically developing peers during age-appropriate activities while improving social competence, friendship development, social skills and improved self-care skills.
  • Golf was the theme of “Far from Par,” a summer golf program for 16 middle and high school students in Bergenfield, N.J., that set out to improve communication, social and physical skills, and help the students forge closer bonds with peers, siblings and parents. The Family Services grant enabled the program to double attendance.
  • The Outdoors for All Foundation, in Seattle, was awarded a grant to expand its outdoor recreation program for children and adults living with ASD and their friends and families. The foundation was also able to design a week-long adventure camp for teens with high functioning autism as a result of their grant.

Our research funding will continue to help us target our family service grants toward specific areas of need and also allow for the development of new and more effective autism services.  We will continue to make use of those research findings to develop and expand new programs is equally important to improve the quality of life of teens and young adults on the spectrum. Autism Speaks would like to thank its supporters for helping us fund our science and family services grant programs.

*Although current consensus in the field eschews us of the term “mental retardation” in favor of “intellectual disability”, the study authors used the mental retardation term “to be consistent with the special education legislative definitions of the various disability categories and the way the survey data were collected.”


  1. Ileana Morales
    January 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Hi,my name is Ileana Morales..my son David is now 18, he is high functioning, and doing great!.but that was not the case 2 years ago.He was lonely,he had no friends..and he was frustrated, he became angry,hurting himself, he would cry and tell me mom “I am a disgrace”. I was desperate…until I started a club.Every weekend for the last 2 years David and his classmates go out to “hang out”,we go to movies,bowling,we have pool parties, dance parties..now his phone doesn’t stop, the texting, the laughing. I seat back and I see these teens that 2 years ago, didn’t even looked at you in the eyes …and know are boyfriends and girlfriends..It has been an Amazing 2 years..but now because of the economic crisis we are going out only once a month..and sometimes I have to turn some of them down,because they don’t have the money for the outings..Do you know any organization that can help us, maybe with discounts at the movies…

  2. Karen Biamonte
    January 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Are there any programs in Florida? I am on the east coast and have never heard of any.I have a 16year old son who is 100% mainstreamed in H.S. in Honor classes A.B

    • Ileana Morales
      January 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      Hi Karen, We are in Miami, in the Kendall area.If you live in this area you can call me at 954-534-2465.-You can also talk to the mothers of your son’s classmates. tell them about the idea, beleive me…they”ll love it…you can go to movies, walk to the malls, go bowling,some pop corn and pizza and watch a movie at home,or put music, so they can dance…

    • Lisa Sizemore
      January 25, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      I am in Orlando and also have a 17 yr old son, high functioning A/B honor roll that needs more friends outside of school. I hope to find something to help him socially.

    • autismspeaksfamilyservices
      January 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm

      Below is a link to resources in Florida as well as grants that we have given out. Please take a look and then contact us if you need further assistance at familyservices@autismspeaks.org or call 1-888-288-AUTISM2.



      • Patty
        January 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm

        Thank you so much for the info.

  3. Beth Myers
    January 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Maybe you can just call the places you have visited;ie: the bowling alley, movie theater. Tell them about your club and they might posssibly give you a discount for being a loyal customer.

  4. Judy
    January 24, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I really dislike the “R”word. My daughter is a teen in the spectrum a social butterfly.And in her phsical growth born with a full head of red hair.High tolersance to any pain,shoe size about 9.5 adults.Love her beyond. I believe hardest for the sibling.She understands everything I am saying. She will get to me how she understands i word or 2. In the past few weeks has said 3-4 words together once.

  5. Patty
    January 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I am retired Speech Path. with a MA in ESE. (25 years experience)
    I am considering applying for a grant to bring the arts, i.e. dance /movement / photography/art/crafts /socialization etc.
    The clients would be able to enroll in weekly classes. I believe there are very limited services available for ASD of this type.
    I would appreciate feedback regarding this concept.
    All responses appreciated

    • Bobbi Binder
      January 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm

      Perfect! Go for it! I took an Expressive Arts course with the exact thing in mind but now it seems to suit those with ASD more so. Where are you located?

      • Patty
        January 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm

        I’m in Miami. I am trying to explore my options at this time.
        However, needless to say I am just at the beginning stages .
        Some funds would allow me to secure a location and actually get it together. i realize it will take some time.

        Thanks for the encouragement

    • Ileana Morales
      January 25, 2012 at 5:36 pm

      Hi Patty! That is a great idea!. there are no services like that for special kids..and our kids need these services…Go for it!!! Are you in the Miami area…If there is anything you need to request the grant, maybe a letter from the mother of a teen with Autism, one who knows how important your services are. and we have no places like that to take our kids. Anything you need…

      • Patty
        January 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm

        I am so pleased by your response.
        I am already a consultant for the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet .They provide community out reach programs for Children at lower income school sites throughout Miami. They also provide inclusion as well. ( aside from incredible opportunity for lower income kids that go on to professional careers.
        I would like to provide various arts and music based programs and social opportunities here in Miami. Are you a Miamian too?

      • Ileana Morales
        January 28, 2012 at 10:29 pm

        Hi Patty!, yes I am in Miami, in the Kendall area. My son David and his friends go to Ferguson High school. I would love to enroll my kids in the art programs..please call me at 954-534-2465, or send me an email at ileanamorales5@hotmail.com….Thank you

    • autismspeaksfamilyservices
      January 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      Here is some further information about our grants program and the types of programs we fund. You can see from the link below the grants we have funded in the past as well. Please keep an eye out for our new RFA. If you have other grants related questions please do not hesitate to contact us at our Family Services Community Grants program, contact Serena Selkin, Family Services Grants Manager at sselkin@autismspeaks.orgor (917) 475-5059.


  6. Jennifer Hess Smith
    January 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I was able to simply contact some of our local theaters and get discounts arranged. You always need to ask for a manager. I know it is a challenging process, but it also might help if you “named” your club and applied for 501 (c)3 status–non-profit business. Sounds silly, but does give you some status. Also, if you haven’t already done so, you can apply for an “Access” pass to all national parks that allows free access for anyone with a disability. Hope this helps.

    • Ileana Morales
      January 25, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Thank you for the information..I did call the manager of the movie teather, and everybody asked me for the name of my club…but I didn’t know how to go about it…I’ll find out about the 501(c)3 status–non-profit business. Thank you for your help

  7. Bobbi Binder
    January 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Oh My! This is exactly what I need for my son who’s 24 and is a high-functioning aspergers person. I’ll have to check with my area and see if there’s something like this. I’ve often thought it would be great if there were group activities for kids and young adults like this. It’s exactly what is needed in my opinion. It’s sad to have them lean on parents to be their friends and do things with all the time. Thanks for posting this.

    • Ileana Morales
      January 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm

      Hi Bobbi, our club is in the Miami area, if you are in this area, you are welcome to join our club.Talk to the mothers of the kids he went to school with…since special kids can stay in high school until they are 23 years, we are planning to keep them together after high school for vocational training or college, so they can help each other….

    • autismspeaksfamilyservices
      January 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      Please check our resource guide, link below, to find local resources for your son. If you need more help or have other questions familyservices@autismspeaks.org or call 1-888-288-AUTISM2.


  8. diane
    January 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    This article even more states the fact and need for the aspergers diagnosis to be kept. Since this diagnosis is high functioning there is an overwhelming predictability that with services and supports the individual can contribute back t society on some level (ie drive and work). Fight to keep these individuals the services they need. They may turnaround and be caregivers for others with severe autistic symptoms. Do not take their treatment away.

  9. January 26, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I’m hosting a virtual discussion tonight (1-26-12) on social conversations so this post is very timely. We are building a web based tool that allows a child to practice various social conversations from any phone. We know how much of a challenge this is for children and adults on the spectrum so we are working with various speech therapists to help us create a variety of social conversations each development age group can practice. If you’d like to join this conversation at 7 pm Central, go to this web page to access the link to participate

  10. Patty
    January 26, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you so much for the encouragement.

    This concept would be a wonderful endeavor.
    It seems with all the support I’ve received it may well happen

    I sincerely hope so

  1. January 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm

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