My book, Social Enjoyment Groups for Children, Teens and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Guiding Toward Growth, outlines the philosophy regarding teaching social enjoyment to persons with an ASD. The groups, which are then presented in detail, are designed to teach the important skill of social enjoyment to young people from the age of five through young adulthood. These groups can occur at school or at community sites.

Before entering private practice, I worked for twenty-six years as a school social worker. There I was introduced to children with autism. But I also met another group of children – children who had great difficulty understanding and interacting with the social world around them, but who did not meet the diagnostic criteria for autism. I began to develop services for these students – even though there was no “label” for them. Later, these students were identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome.

During my first months of private practice, I was asked by the parents of two bright, well-educated young men to help get their sons “out of the basement” – where they spent hours surfing the net and buying/selling on on-line. I tried, but I was not successful. Both young men were terrified of basic social situations that had occurred at work – interactions like being asked about current events by co-workers, knowing what to say at office retirement events, etc.

I realized I was starting too late. Social enjoyment, as both an important life and employment skill, needs to be taught and practiced as early as possible. We need to provide our young people with safe, predictable situations to practice enjoying a social interaction. The successes I’ve seen in my own work demonstrate that social enjoyment is indeed a skill – and thus, can be learned.

In the USA where I practice, 1 out of every 110 babies is born with an ASD. The world cannot afford for these individuals to grow into adulthood with a high degree of social anxiety and thus a strong tendency toward social avoidance. Supporting the young people with welfare programs will be hugely expensive for countries, and a less than desirable life for the individuals.

Let me be clear. Social Enjoyment groups are not designed to replace social skills groups and social skills curriculums. These provide essential core knowledge. They create a sturdy foundation upon which the individual can build more skills. In my conception, social skills groups are the foundation of the ASD person’s “house”, and Social Enjoyment skills are the first floor. Part of my job is to then build on the Social Enjoyment skills to create solid employment skills. (In my next book, I plan to describe our efforts to work with buildings and corporations in order to create the understanding that “neuro-typical” employers and co-workers will need in order to create supportive work environments for ASD employees.)

Last Thursday, a mother of one of my fourteen year-old group members approached me. She was so excited that she came up to me during group time. With a huge smile on her face, she told me that something terrific had happened that weekend. Her church held a dinner to collect presents and money for assisting persons in poverty during the upcoming Christmas season. She was working in the kitchen. During the dinner, she peaked out to see if her son was okay. She was astonished – and very pleased – to see him sitting with a group of students from his confirmation class. They were all laughing and talking.

This was the first time she had ever seen him include himself with his peers. At every other event he had quickly eaten and then retreated to a corner with a book or a Gameboy. He had, partially through the practice he had during his Social Enjoyment groups, developed enough ease and confidence to join a spontaneous group. This is the kind of story that fuels my passion for this work.

John Merges is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, currently working in private practice with young people with ASD and their families. He is based in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information about John’s work with people with ASD and their families, teachers, businesses and other professionals, visit

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

3 Thoughts

  1. Having the experience of simply enjoying yourself in a social setting, for even a brief moment, changes everything when it comes to dealing with ASD, and being able to take the risk of including yourself in another setting. We learn from our experiences, and my personal experiences in working with Social Enjoyment Groups, as part of the Guiding Toward Growth Theory, has convinced me that the value of John Merges’ approach adds significant assurance to young ASD individuals as to what they realize they can do, and enjoy doing it.

  2. Our son, who has very high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, participated in one of John Merges’ Funjoyment groups for a year. One of his biggest challenges was to be comfortable interacting in a group of peers. He had participated in social skills groups before and resisted them. From our son’s standpoint, the Funjoyment group was a fun after-school opportunity to play games and do other things with kids in a socially safe environment. The gentle guidance provided is so subtle that even the brightest ASD kid may be unaware of the skills they are learning. After only a few months of participation, it was fun to see that our son, following the winter school break, could hardly wait for the next Funjoyment session to bring the computer he built during vacation for “show and tell.” There was such a blossoming of our son’s social skills that we sought out a public school high school option with an ASD program that includes some of John’s methodology and were successful in arranging an out-of-district transfer. It has been a terrific fit. Lately, our son has had too many scheduling conflicts with after-school robotics, drama and music activities to participate in Funjoyment sessions, a true indication to both John Merges and to us parents of just how much social confidence our son gained from his participation in the social enjoyment group.

  3. I am not an expert in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorders. But I have a personal working knowledge of ASD because I have a grandson who was diagnosed with ASD 9 years ago. I have known John Merges for many years and have followed his career. This book is a representation of John: his sense of humor, his passion for youth with social challenges, his expertise in guiding youth and their families into a deeper understanding of how to overcome such challenges, and a steadfast dedication to getting the word out.

    I foresee this book to be a valuable resource for other grandparents in relating and enjoying their ASD grandchildren. This book was not around when we most needed it and our grandson was not able to participate in John’s FunJoyment groups because we live on the west coast, but my husband and I had the privilege of getting his sound advice these past 9 years. Our grandson is now 12 and doing very well. We do have an excellent program in our school district which has helped tremendously; however, I must thank John for filling in all the gaps. It is my hope that I will see these groups started in my region of the country and this book will be a valuable tool for all families when and where it is needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.