Girls Night Out: Empowering girls with autism
Thank you to the Women Philanthropists for KU group, whose members kickstarted our drive by meeting their $2500 goal! Let's keep this great momentum going!
Girls Night Out (GNO) is a social skills and self-care program for girls with autism and related developmental disabilities, offered through the Center for Child Health and Development (CCHD) at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs social skills and communication, resulting in difficulties establishing and maintaining relationships. Boys are 4-5 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism compared with girls, resulting in primarily male samples in research and services geared towards this population. Girls present differently in the core areas of autism, which is not surprising given gender differences often found for the general population in social and communication behaviors. Girls with autism often experience greater social difficulties as they enter adolescence and are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, suggesting this unique and underserved population warrants our focus and priority in research and service.
Our Organization & Programs
Dr. Rene Jamison established Girls Night Out (GNO) in 2008 to address this gap area with the goal of providing socially valid and meaningful intervention services designed specifically for girls with autism and related developmental disabilities navigating adolescence. GNO’s mission is to empower girls and young women with and without autism toward optimal health and improved quality of life. GNO is unique in that it targets self-care skills along with social skills and incorporates trained, typically developing peers as models and mediators within the intervention. GNO does not occur in a clinic or artificial setting; girls meet at locations within the community. Locations and activities often involve dinners out, parks, hair salons, fitness centers, dancing, skin care, trampoline parks, music, and hosting just to name a few. We establish community partners for many activities in specific areas of expertise (i.e., hair care), collaborating to ensure a successful experience. We’ve worked with over 60 community partners, resulting in positive visibility for people with disability in our community and empowering these partners for future encounters with people with autism. Most important, GNO is fun and provides social outings, relationship building and an opportunity for a much-needed Girls Night Out!
Current Programs and Services
Intervention Groups. Girls complete the GNO curriculum during weekly 2-hour sessions that occur across 8-12 weeks. Participant groups include 4-5 girls with autism or related disability and an equal number of trained peer volunteers. Facilitators teach and reinforce targeted skills using evidence based strategies and provide specific feedback and coaching throughout social and self-care activities. Girls earn “GNO bucks” for demonstrating target skills, self-monitoring, and working toward self-identified goals. The “GNO store” is stocked with desired items for purchase with their GNO bucks in hopes to reinforce these targeted skills and activities. Past groups targeted adolescents and young adults, thus far completing a total of 12 intervention groups, including over 50 girls with autism and related disabilities, more than 60 peer volunteers, and 25 trained facilitators. New services include intervention groups for younger girls.
Community Events. These events are open to past, present or future GNO participants, initiated in 2014 to provide ongoing social activities and opportunities to build sustainable relationships. These events are typically less structured than the intervention sessions, but still include coaching and reinforcement during actual social or self-care activities. We’ve reached over 150 girls with and without autism through community events and intervention groups.
Parents Night Out (PNO). Concurrent with some GNO sessions and events, we now provide a parent component. Activities include guest speakers on parent identified topics or time for networking focused on parent connections and support.
Building sustainable programs and funding
GNO, which focuses on girls and women with autism and related disabilities, has the potential to make a significant impact on the trajectory of girls and young women with autism in our community. This can be achieved by establishing sustainable and directed funding to support personnel capable of designing and executing intervention groups, community events, and family support initiatives for girls with autism and related disabilities. Our community, and university, has an opportunity to support an innovative model with potential for replication. GNO is nationally recognized and is one of very few programs in the country designed specifically for girls with autism. Our vision includes an expansion of services for girls and women with ASD, community training, and socially valid research to better understand and work with this unique population. We are eager to grow services to include a broader age range and additional programs, but are hesitant to expand the reach knowing time and support personnel to facilitate such programs is limited. Families initiated the GNO Alumni which coordinates parent-led GNO activities and related parent support initiatives. GNO has an advisory board including girls with autism and their parents. Funding priorities include personnel to provide adequate services for our community and scholarships to enable all girls to benefit.