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spotlight model

The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model: Drama-Based Social Skills Intervention using evidence-based Socio-dramatic, affective relational intervention (SDARI)

By | NESCA Notes 2018

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, NESCA

Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Community-Based Skills Coach, NESCA


This summer, NESCA piloted its first series of social pragmatics groups using the Northeast Arc Spotlight/SDARI model. We are excited to continue offering these groups in the 2018-2019 school year. Please read below to learn more about this model and whether it sounds like to fit for a child or adolescent in your life:

For those of us in the autism community, you may have noticed a lot of buzz recently around drama-based social pragmatic intervention for children on the spectrum. Perhaps this is because they provoke creativity, self-expression of participants, and are often more fun than traditional didactic models. Creating spaces for ASD individuals to practice social interactions in a semi-structured setting while providing fun and interactive activities allow for true, authentic social connection.

The Spotlight Model was originally developed in 2004 at the Northeast Arc under the clinical guidance of Dr. Matthew Lerner and Dr. Karen Levine. Since that time, Dr. Lerner has used the acronym SDARI (Socio-Dramatic Affective Relational Intervention) to describe the model in his past and current research studies. The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model was created in response to children who were not having success in traditional social skills models, and who needed something more engaging and personalized. This method was developed as a way to teach social pragmatics, as opposed to social skills.  While these terms may sound similar, the differences are vast when it comes to developing generalizable skills. Simply put, social skills consist of rote memorization, manners, active listening, and following a basic set of social rules. Social pragmatics focus on finding one’s own unique social style that is intrinsically motivating and fluid. It is the ability to effectively use communication in social situations while maintaining individuality and being able to respond to unpredictable circumstances.

What makes the Northeast Arc Spotlight Model different?

The Spotlight Model/SDARI uses a three-part model to create engaging groups that maximize the potential for ongoing friendships. Groups are formed by taking into account a number of factors, including personality, socialization style, common interests and, to a lesser degree, age and gender.

  1. Improvisation and dramatic training as social learning. Many of the skills necessary to be a confident social individual are the same skills necessary to become a successful actor. Goals such as Thinking of Your Feet, Body Language, Tone of Voice, and Someone Else’s Perceptive work on both improv and skills, dramatic training, and reciprocal scene work, as well as social competence and confidence. Improvisation’s one and only rule is “yes, and”; meaning that no matter what happens in a game/scene/activity, the participant must say, “yes” to accept what is happening and not block to flow, the “and” to build on that idea with a new one. Improv games allow groups to implicitly work on skills while laughing together, being creative, and forming lasting bonds. After all – laughter is the shortest distance between two people!
  2. Relational reinforcement. Counselors using the Northeast Arc Spotlight Model work to form trust and real relationships with participants. Each group has a head counselor, the individual responsible for creating the flow of the day, overseeing the group as a whole, and maintaining momentum. They are complemented by support counselors who check in with each child, create ways for everyone to be involved, and use strategies to help everyone feel like a contributing group member. Counselors use redirection, side-coaching, playful humor, inside jokes, and even passwords or codes. For example, during the opening meeting, the head counselor asks each participant the “question of the day” – a support counselor may sit next to a participant with slower processing to help them quietly prepare an answer before it is their turn to speak. During improvisation games, a support counselor may have a secret code word with a participant as a reminder to stay focused on the game they are playing. Participation looks different for everyone, and improv games and activities allow for a wide range of abilities and engagement.
  3. Strong use of age-appropriate motivators. The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model incorporates the use of video games, board games, and special interests to promote connection and interaction. During “break time” participants are encouraged to choose a preferred activity, as long as they are working together with a peer. This creates a space for independent conversation and interaction, with active facilitation from staff, and a way to share what they love. In addition, counselors often use a participant’s special interest to keep them engaged and excited. For example, someone who loves trains may play the game, Ask an Expert! to teach his peers about his favorite topic.

Many of our autistic friends and family thrive when their quirky humor is encouraged. Their unique perspective and disinhibited nature often lend itself to a unique and hilarious sense of humor. The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model creates a setting where children can be fully themselves, while simultaneously working to develop their social abilities. The facilitation of positive interactions and collaborative learning builds confidence and successful peer relationships.

Learn more and schedule an intake:

  • For more information about the Northeast Arc Spotlight Model groups being run at NESCA, please contact Rebecca Girard at
  • To learn more about the Northeast Arc in Danvers, MA, visit:
  • To read more about the current efficacy of the SDARI model please visit


About the Authors: 

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in neurodivergent issues, sexual trauma, and international social work. She has worked primarily with children, adolescents, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families for over a decade. Ms. Girard is highly experienced in using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) as well as Socio-dramatic Affective Relational Intervention (SDARI), in addition to a number of other modalities. She provides enhanced psychotherapy to children with ASD at NESCA as well as to provide therapeutic support to youth with a range of mood, anxiety, social and behavioral challenges. Her approach is child-centered, strengths-based, creative and compassionate.


Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L is Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatrics and occupational therapy in the developing world. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as well as social skills coaching as part of NESCA’s transition team.





Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.