What started out on a small scale as the Junior Detective Training Programme, has now matured as Secret Agent Society (SAS) – a programme aimed at regulating the emotions and improving the social skills for eight to 12-year-olds with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder conditions (Asperger’s type).

What is SAS?

As its name suggests, SAS revolves around the theme of espionage and there is a big emphasis on having fun. An animated computer game is a key feature of the programme, which is supported by child group therapy sessions including strategic play activities. There is the walkie-talkie Voice Transmission game, the Challenger Board game, and Helpful Thought missile game, all aimed to train “cadets” to become mind-reading agents able to detect, recognise, and react appropriately to emotions and social challenges.

The 12-session programme is designed to help children gain essential life skills such as recognising emotions, expressing feelings, interacting with others, coping with change, and dealing with bullying.

It can be delivered in a clinical setting, but is increasingly being used in schools. A three-year evaluation of SAS is currently under way in five Australian school districts.

Clinically proven

Behind the fun and games, however, the clinical aspects of the programme are what are driving the success of SAS. A study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry ,reportedly shows the best clinical results to date for a social skills programme for children with Asperger’s Syndrome. A randomised controlled trial found that 76 per cent of children diagnosed with Asperger’s improved from clinically significant delays in social functioning, to showing social skills within the range of typically developing children. Perhaps even more impressively, this improvement was maintained five months after the programme was completed.

This highlights one of the strengths of the programme – its relevance to a child’s life outside of the 12 sessions. Parent education, teacher tip sheets, real life missions, and a system to monitor progress and reward achievement are all ways the strategies learned from the programme can be applied to real life.

Asperger’s syndrome

Those familiar with Asperger’s Syndrome will know that it is something individuals have to contend with on a day-to-day basis. The condition was named after Dr Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician who originally described the syndrome in 1944. More recently, the Asperger’s Syndrome was classified as an autistim spectrum disorder. Despite being classified in this manner, children with Asperger’s generally do not experience the same language or cognitive deficits as children with autism. While children with autism often (but not always) have some form of intellectual disability, children with Asperger’s Syndrome do not, by definition, have significant intellectual problems.

Asperger’s is characterised by difficulties with social interaction, misunderstanding social cues, and misinterpreting language. At the same time, those with Asperger’s Syndrome can have highly developed language skills and are usually of normal to high intelligence. While statistics vary on the prevalence of Asperger’s, it’s believed to affect around one in 250 children. The vast majority are boys. Interestingly, the World Health Organisation’s original claim that Asperger’s was eight times more common among boys than girls was revoked because studies began to show that girls with Asperger’s are better at learning and copying social skills.

While there is no cure for Asperger’s, early treatment and intervention including parent education and training, social skills training, language therapy, and behavioural therapy can all help. This is where programmes like SAS come in.

SAS in New Zealand

Awareness of the SAS programme is growing in New Zealand.

The Ministry of Education has allocated funding to use the programme.

Autism New Zealand and IDEA have so far trained 18 professionals in New Zealand to deliver the SAS programme. Part of the two-day practitioner training course that professionals attend involves a discussion of how professionals will tailor the programme to the cultural needs of the families they support, as well as the different developmental levels of children they may work with. There are also materials included with the programme resources to support this tailoring process.

Celeste Littek, a Resource Teacher for Learning Behaviour (RTLB) in Napier, is one of the 18 New Zealand practitioners and has run the SAS programme over the last three years.

“The course works well within my situation, as I am employed to support the social and emotional development of diverse students, and the cost of buying the parent packs is able to be funded through our Learners Support Fund (LSF), as many of our Asperger and high functioning ASD students rarely draw on that fund.”

The packs are $300 and they include the virtual reality computer programme, the teacher training book, the parent training book, the student work book, and all of the support material.

“The programme can be linked to the class through the teacher, the parent links the learning goals at home and into the community, and the child gains valuable support in self-regulation (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy component of the course) and social skills/social understanding through the weekly missions and group work.”

The links between teacher, home, and community are obviously an important aspect of the programme. New Zealand parent, Tracey Brough, whose son Matt participated in the SAS programme, found the different computers at home and school proved to be a limiting factor.

“I found the SAS programme rather difficult, as at the time we did it I only had a laptop at home and Matt hated using it, he preferred the desktops like at school…so he steadfastly refused to do it at home. In the end, Matt’s teacher aide worked on the programme with him during school time,” says Brough.

Brough says that although she didn’t notice any big changes in Matt’s behaviour as a result of the programme, they will persist. “It’s something that we can continue to work on as we do still have the pack.”

Secret Agent Society Practitioner training will be held 10 and 11 September, 2012 at the Triple P Centre, Level 2, 15 Sultan St, in Ellerslie, Auckland. For more information please contact training@sst-institute.net


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