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"How would you feel?" Improving Social Skills in Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

Yolie and I hold up photos of individuals with various facial expressions, and I ask the group, "How would you feel if someone gave you a compliment?" Several hands shoot up into the air and point at the various photos, and most point towards a photo of a young man with a smiling expression.

"That's right! If someone gives us a compliment, we feel happy!"

This brief interaction is a snapshot into our weekly lessons with some of the residents at The Baddour Center. Yolie Rodriguez and I are both graduate students at the University of Mississippi's Clinical Psychology doctoral program and interns in the Education and Behavioral Supports Division at The Baddour Center. As part of our responsibilities as interns, we meet with a group of male residents in their home once a week to strengthen their social skills.

Research[1] shows that individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) or autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have difficulty with social skills. Our work with this group of residents at The Baddour Center focuses on increasing helpful verbal and non-verbal social behaviors such speaking, smiling, making eye-contact, showing an interest in others, helping others, participating in activities, understanding different perspectives, and other skills that enable them to have positive social interactions with other residents and Baddour Center staff. 

We use two evidence-based approaches[2] that are useful for improving social skills in adults with ID and ASD: behavioral intervention (providing a prompt and reinforcing the correct behavior or guiding the individual to the correct behavior) and structured teaching (instruction based on identifying areas of strength and need for each resident and developing a plan that builds on each resident's strengths). An example of a lesson that combines these approaches is the “emotion game” that teaches residents to identify appropriate emotions and practice taking different perspectives. Using printed photographs of different individuals making faces representing various emotions (happy, sad, angry, disgusted, etc.) as visual cues, we prompt residents to identify the appropriate emotion for a given situation. We use an individualized approach that takes into account each resident's areas of strength and need, which means that success in this activity looks different for each resident. Some residents receive praise and a sticker on their sticker charts for identifying the correct emotion, while others receive reinforcement for making eye contact and speaking up.

We have enjoyed the challenge of learning how we can be most helpful to the residents, both through reviewing the psychology literature for best practices and by consulting with the staff here at The Baddour Center, many of whom have known the residents for years and provide insightful advice and suggestions. We've found that working with the residents and seeing gradual improvements in their skills is incredibly rewarding. With only 4 more months remaining of our internship, we look forward to continuing to grow as psychologists-in-training as we work with the residents here at The Baddour Center. 

-- Shilpa Boppana and Yolie Rodriguez


[1] Matson, J.L., Dempsey, T., & LoVullo, S.V. (2009). Characteristics of social skills for adults with intellectual disability, autism, and PDD-NOS. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 3, 207-213.

[2] Walton, K.M. & Ingersoll, B.R. (2012). Improving social skills in adolescents and adults with autism and severe to profound intellectual disability: A review of the literature. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 594-615.