A newly published study documents the lasting benefits of a program that enlists typically developing kindergarteners and first graders to help teach social skills to classmates who have autism – all in the context of an after-school playgroup.
The researchers began by teaching their “Peer Networks Intervention” strategies to teachers, speech therapists and classroom assistants. The school staff then oversaw play groups that included a kindergartener with autism paired with two or three typically developing classmates.
To be enrolled in the study, the children with autism needed enough communication skills to follow simple directions and make simple requests with at least two- to three-word phrases.
The half-hour play groups met, on average, three times a week. After introducing a concept such as sharing, the teachers asked the “typical” classmates to help prompt the child with autism in a friendly manner. For example, during a game that involved sharing a toy, the classmate might prop up a small sign with the words “May I have it?” and “Here, you go.”
In a follow-up to their playgroup study, the Kansas University researchers created “Connecting Kids,” a series of child-friendly videos that help typically developing children understand and support friends and classmates who have autism.
In this way, the children practiced social skills such as requesting, commenting and using niceties such as “please” and “thank you.” The play groups continued to meet for the first six months of kindergarten and again for the first six months of first grade.
In all, 56 children with autism completed the program. For comparison, the researchers also followed the social development of a comparison group of 39 children with autism who received only the school’s standard special education services for students with autism.
To find out if the children were using their new social skills outside of the play groups, the researchers observed their interactions with other classmates in other situations. They recorded such observations on at least four occasions, including the end of first grade.
“We found that the children who participated in the social network not only made significant progress in social communication during the intervention but also made many more initiations to their peers in general,” says senior researcher Debra Kamps, director of the University of Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training.
To make sure their measurements were objective, the researchers used standardized checklists of social communication behaviors. They also asked teachers to complete questionnaires about student behavior.
The results showed that children with autism who participated in the peer-network play groups initiated significantly more social interactions with classmates than did the children in the comparison group. Children in the program also showed more growth in language and appropriate conversation.
Finally, teacher ratings of the children’s social skills showed significantly greater improvements in social skills and classroom behavior for the children who participated in the program.
As further evidence of effectiveness, many of the teachers have continued to use the peer network strategies in their classrooms, Dr. Kamps says. "We know how to do this, and our research has shown us that it's not hard to teach people how to do it," she concludes.
"It’s exciting to see studies continuing to demonstrate the effectiveness of interventions that incorporate peers in treatment practices, comments Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director for education research. "At the same time, as the authors described, the children with autism in this study had moderate to high language levels. So it’s important to recognize that the same results may not apply to all children on the autism spectrum.”
The positive results of the “Peer Network Intervention” support those of a related peer-training program pioneered by Autism Speaks-funded researcher Connie Kasari. To learn more about Dr. Kasari’s study – ranked as one of “Top Ten Research Advances of 2012” – see “Peer Training Outperforms Traditional Autism Interventions.