Certified and aspiring school psychologists at Adelphi’s Social Training Center help young adults with autism spectrum find acceptance and friends.

The need for friends—or at least peers who accept you—is a near universal human trait. Even adolescents with autism spectrum disorder, who struggle to communicate and socialize, feel this urge and can be transformed when they satisfy it. Helping them do so is the primary goal of Adelphi University’s Social Training Center.

Every week, the clinicians and school psychology master’s students who work at the Social Training Center gather with Associate Professor Ionas Sapountzis, Ph.D., to review cases.

The center, which is an integral part of the school psychology master’s program at Adelphi’s Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, offers low-cost weekly social groups for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. The groups are small—between three and six participants—and arranged to maximize compatibility among the participants and the clinicians who lead them. Each group is led by a graduate of Adelphi’s school psychology master’s program—either Ehrin McHenry, M.A. ’11, or Stephanie Bezalel, M.A. ’12 (both of whom are certified school psychologists), and one or two carefully selected school psychology master’s students, who gain valuable clinical training from their involvement.

Supervised social groups for youth with autism spectrum disorder have become fairly common, especially as autism diagnoses have mushroomed in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in children born in the United States more than doubled from 1 in 150 among those born in 1992 to 1 in 68 among those born in 2002.

Adelphi’s Social Training Center distinguishes itself in its highly compassionate and thorough approach. Ionas Sapountzis, Ph.D., a Derner Institute associate professor and director of the school psychology master’s program who also runs the Social Training Center, pointed out the nuances that set the center apart.

For one, group leaders go out of their way to make the members feel welcome and to foster connections. Tolerance and acceptance are at the core of the ethos.

“These young people come in with several stereotypical behaviors and we try not to criticize them or correct them,” Dr. Sapountzis said. Group leader Ehrin McHenry, M.A. ‘11, added, “We don’t reprimand, we address.” That might mean taking a member aside at the end of a session to discuss an issue privately rather than comment on it in front of peers.

Further, the Social Training Center deviates from the norm in encouraging members to get together outside of sessions. Leaders facilitate informal gatherings, such as grabbing pizza or catching a movie, among some or all of the group members. Dr. Sapountzis and his team see that these more impromptu interactions enhance social skills and can foster friendships.

Feedback is also important. Once a month, each member meets with a group leader to receive personalized feedback on his performance in the group. The meetings are short—about 10 minutes—but can be highly effective as evidenced in cases that are reviewed at weekly supervision meetings.

Every week, the group leaders gather with Dr. Sapountzis to review cases and receive feedback. They also discuss how they can apply the qualitative data that they are gathering on student outcomes toward larger research initiatives. The school psychology graduate students who volunteer at the Social Training Center said that the collaborative approach and the chance to discuss and carefully consider each client’s needs set this field experience apart from others.

At a supervision meeting this past October, the clinicians devoted more than 25 minutes to discussing the progress they had seen in one group member who, in less than a year, had transformed from a well-defensed machine only interested in teaching other group members algorithms to someone who came to each session with stories and jokes to share with not only the leaders but the members as well.

Alexandra Cami, a school psychology master’s student who co-led the group and presented the case, observed that the change in the member was evident not only in the group, but also at his high school, where she was fulfilling her practicum requirement and, as a result, was able to observe him.

She described how the support of teachers and specialists in the school buoyed him and helped him accept his diagnosis and its related strengths and challenges. She also discussed his successful transition to community college and a job. Yet, when Dr. Sapountzis asked her about the specific role of the Social Training Center, she said, “He doesn’t have friends in school. The first time he probably ever hung out with someone was from the Social Training Center.”

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