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Andrea Johnson

Teaching Social Skills to Kids with Autism

Breanna Olaveson | Photo by Kevin Kiernan Mar 12, 2018

When Andrea Johnson was teaching special education eight years ago, she was frustrated at her inability to teach social skills to kids with autism.

“There was just not enough time during the school day for them to learn important social skills,” Johnson says. “But I knew there had to be a way to fit it in the day without interfering with the core classes.”

The question weighed on her mind for a long time, and little by little, she came up with a solution. After years of developing a program, working with app developers and securing funding, she is now piloting the program at Spectrum Academy, a charter school in Pleasant Grove, Utah, for kids with autism.

We Are Friends

“In my research, I discovered that the No. 1 thing parents wanted for their (autistic) kids was for them to make friends,” Johnson says. She focused on that goal first. Eventually, students who use her “We Are Friends” program complete four units that go beyond simply making friends.

Each unit is comprised of modules that take less than 10 minutes a day to complete. Unit one focuses on building foundational social skills, such as making eye contact. Unit two introduces skills needed to make friends in school, like introducing yourself, asking questions and appropriate speaking volume. The third unit teaches social skills in the community, from ordering in a restaurant to purchasing a movie ticket. Unit four introduces workplace social skills.

“The end result of the program is to give kids the skills they need to get a job,” Johnson says. “Along the way it helps them build relationships, but it’s about preparing them for life.”

Initial Success

When the program was in its early development stages, Johnson tested her new ideas. She evaluated 10 children with high-functioning autism for eye contact. Most students performed poorly, making eye contact less than 20 percent of the time.

Then they used the modules in “We Are Friends” to practice at home. After a week, Johnson gave the same evaluation. Four of the 10 students made eye contact at least 90 percent of the time; and those with lower scores were still above 50 percent.

“I thought, ‘I’ve tapped into something that will help them,’” Johnson says. “It became less ‘Maybe I’ll pursue this’ and more ‘Shame on me if I don’t pursue this.’”

Humanitarian Work

When she’s not developing life-changing social development courses for children on the autism spectrum, Johnson feeds her passion for helping children living in Cape Coast, Ghana, in West Africa. She taught in a school with very limited resources for several years and even honeymooned in Ghana while on a teaching trip. (“It wasn’t very romantic,” she says.) Today, she is working to help a friend build an orphanage in the area and owns 18 acres that she hopes to develop into a trade school.

Johnson also helps refugees living in Salt Lake City — many of whom are from West Africa — integrate into the community.

“I’ve always had a strong desire to help people,” Johnson says.

It’s safe to say she’s succeeding.

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