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WVU to host social support group for teen girls with autism, inspiring confidence and independence

University of Kansas has held its research-based Girls Night Out (GNO) program since 2008, providing vital life skills to girls and women with developmental disabilities for nearly two decades.

Upon attending a training event for the program, Molly Abitbol quickly recognized its potential benefits to the Morgantown community. This summer marks the area’s first-ever series of GNO sessions, led by the WVU Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic.

Through group gatherings and activities, GNO provides opportunities for high school girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other developmental disabilities to form long-lasting friendships, gain confidence in social situations and develop other valuable life skills. Abitbol, an assistant professor in WVU School of Medicine’s Division of Communications Sciences and Disorders, has experience with a variety of developmental disabilities and highlights the need for a program like GNO.

ASD in boys is diagnosed at higher rates than girls — around four times more often, according to the CDC — and this can lead to feelings of isolation for girls with autism, explained Abitbol. This is especially true for their teenage years. The labyrinth that is high school social hierarchies becomes even-more difficult to navigate when combined with a social developmental disability.

GNO aims to ease the weight of both of these challenges and more with evidence-based strategies, not only acting as a setting to meet like-minded individuals but also providing lessons on skills that will support participants through their high school years and beyond.

Meetings will be held Friday evenings from June 21-July 28, and, unlike other therapeutic programs for developmental disabilities, GNO is unique in its community-centered approach rather than a clinical setting. Participants might meet at a restaurant, gym, hair salon or other community space to practice everyday skills like hair care, ordering food, physical wellness, starting and maintaining conversations and more.

In addition to program leaders, girls without developmental disabilities are needed to volunteer as peer mentors, helping to guide participants through meaningful social interactions while earning community service hours and gaining valuable experience. The program’s design is founded in research from University of Kansas demonstrating challenges faced by those with developmental disabilities in social situations with individuals of their own age.

Above all, Abitbol hopes participants leave with strong connections and newfound confidence.

“I hope they make lasting friendships, that they find a friend that they feel comfortable interacting with outside of the program,” said Abitbol.

GNO is open to high school girls aged 14-21. Admission is $300, but financial assistance is available to qualifying individuals. There is no cost for volunteer peer mentors.

Program participants and volunteers should register by contacting Melissa Dew at For more information, contact Dew or call the WVU Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic at 304-293-4241.

GNO is expected to become an annual program, and, in the future, expand to offer groups for middle school age groups.

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