Talking on Camera Could Help Teens with Autism

Gael Orsmond, a SAR associate occupational therapy professor (left), and Ellen Cohn, a SAR clinical occupational therapy professor, are studying whether the use of video can improve social skills for teenagers with an autism spectrum disorder. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

By Sheryl Flatow

A 14-year-old boy looks into a video camera and reflects on the need for friendship. “I think you want friends because people are social beings, and we’re all born to want to be around other people,” he says. “It’s just how we are.”

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly notable about that statement. But it was made by an adolescent with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which gives the words a powerful resonance. Most people with an ASD, regardless of their age, have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships. They want friends, as that 14-year-old attests and research confirms, but generally lack the social skills to create those bonds.

Now, two occupational therapy professors are examining whether video might be a tool in helping effect change in high-functioning adolescents with an ASD. Gael Orsmond, a SAR associate professor of occupational therapy, and Ellen Cohn (SAR’76,’00), a SAR clinical professor of occupational therapy, are conducting a feasibility study, titled Videos of Important People (VIP), to determine whether the use of video can help teens improve social skills and strengthen friendships. The boy quoted above was among the first five participants in the ongoing intervention project.

“Much of the research in the autism field has been focused on the social impairments of people with autism,” says Cohn. “But some people with an ASD do have friends, and we thought, rather than focusing on their social communications deficits, why don’t we flip this paradigm on its head and try to understand what adolescents who have autism are doing that works for them. How are they relating to their friends? What do they think about friends?”

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