The Key Role of Social Workers

By John D. Comegys, M.A., CRC and Matthew Guggemos MS, CCC-SLP

Among the many professionals who work with people on the autism spectrum, social workers have moved to the forefront in the areas of case management, community interaction, and social skills training. Although speech-language pathologists (SLPs) often teach social skills, social workers can also provide these services, applying their unique knowledge of community related issues that confront people with autism.

Given that one in 54 boys in 2012 (CDC, 2012) received an autism diagnosis, there will be a tidal wave of individuals needing vocational services, as they transition into adulthood.

The good news is that some states are recognizing this problem and are paving the way forsocial workers to take a lead role in helping people on the autism spectrum learn the skills they need to be successful in both the community and the workplace. For example, Minnesota school social workers are serving as case managers for people with ASD by collaborating with parents, teachers, SLPs, occupational therapists and school psychologists (Eveslage, 2012). In Minnesota, school social workers reportedly spend about half their time working with individual ASD students while spending the other half leading groups to teach social skills (Eveslage, 2012).

Interestingly, a number of social workers have adopted a social-cognition program developed by a well-known speech-language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner, who created a “concrete social thinking vocabulary” that parents and kids find more accessible than typical SLP jargon (Hanson, 2011 and Johnson, 2013). Social workers who teach social skills using Winner’s practical and comprehensible approach report positive results for their clients —for example increased feelings of being in control and decreased anxiety in their students. (Johnson, 2013) Social skill and social cognition training materials provided in this program are simple, clear, and they are well suited to use with adults on the spectrum, their families, and layman who work with them.  Social workers, vocational experts, and job coaches working with adults on the autism spectrum can use this simplified SLP approach to enhance job readiness and to deal with social communication problems on the job.

Social workers in Rhode Island are also incorporating Winner’s approach. Clinical social worker Kristen Bock’s Social Thinking Group at the Autism Group of Rhode Island uses Winner’s Social Cognitive and Social Language Curricula to teach social skills and social cognition, focusing on ambiguous social rules, called hidden curricula and hidden social codes that underlie every-day communication and interaction within the community.

Although social workers often work in clinical environments, their training allows them to practice in many other settings, providing services such as mental health diagnostics, program implementation, individual counseling, and group therapy: all of which can benefit people on the autism spectrum. Additionally, because social workers are trained to provide individual and group therapy services, they make effective social-cognition coaches, who can help an increasing number of adults with autism learn to cope with the ambiguous and sometimes-frustrating world of workplace social interaction. Given their increasing presence on autism treatment teams, social workers have shown that they can play a key role in improving social functioning, addressing behavioral issues, and increasing the well-being of individuals on the autism spectrum – whether at school, in a clinic, or at a workplace.

Learn More About IBCCES Autism Certification Programs 


YouTube of Autism group of Rhode Island

Home page of The Autism Group of Rhode Island.


Autism Speaks (2010) Autism on the Rise.


CDC (2012) CDC estimates 1 in 88 children in United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder.


Eveslage, Marnie. (2012) School Social Workers’ Perspectives on Working with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.


Hanson (2011) Social Cognitive Skills Groups.


Johnson, Ashlea. (2013) Social Thinking and the Clinical Social Worker or Licensed Mental Health Counselor: An Effective intervention Tool.


Winner, M. G.  & Crooke, P. (2011) Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care? San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.IRCA | 1905 North Range Rd. | Bloomington, IN 47408 | 812-855-6508 | [email protected]

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