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Study Shows Benefits of ‘Integrated Play Groups' for Kids with Autism

Program encourages children with autism to engage in imaginative play with others their age, with minimal adult interference
October 30, 2014

It's a common challenge for parents of children with autism: How to help their child learn to play well with other children.

A new study, funded by Autism Speaks, suggests that one key may be providing the right amount of guidance to encourage kid-directed imaginative play. The study report appears in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The researchers designed their study to measure the benefits of a program called Integrated Play Groups. Developed over the last decade by study co-author Pamela Wolfberg, the program encourages children with autism and their typically developing peers to engage in creative play of mutual interest. An adult facilitator initiates but doesn’t direct the play. This sets the program apart from more traditional, highly structured programs for teaching social skills to children with autism.

The goal is to move children with autism from a repetitive, solitary pattern of play to one that involves interaction and imagination, Dr. Wolfberg says.

Dr. Wolfberg’s team at San Francisco State University enrolled 48 children with autism (41 boys and 7 girls), ages 5 to 10, in the program. The children ranged from mildly to severely affected by the disorder. In addition, the program included 144 age-matched children with typical development.

Over a 12 -week period, the children met after school twice a week for a 60-minute play group. Each group consisted of two children with autism and two same-age children unaffected by the disorder. Each session included 40 minutes of free play. The trained guide initiated the play by suggesting a theme designed to encourage socialization, communication and imagination.

By way of example, Dr. Wolfberg recalls a young boy with autism who loved to bang things. “The kids came up with this idea of building cardboard blocks and having an earthquake, and he was the construction worker. He was able to participate in other kids’ interests, build something more elaborate and have a whole fantasy about it.”

In some sessions, the children with autism played with familiar classmates. In other sessions, they played with children they didn’t know. During the study, the researchers used a rating system to track changes in the children’s social interactions and play patterns.

By the end of the 12-week program, the children with autism showed overall improvement in their abilities to both engage in mutual pretend play and interact with kids they didn’t know. The typically developing children also benefitted. They got better at forming friendships with children who communicate or play differently.

“These results indicate the Integrated Play Group model to be a promising treatment to address social and symbolic play delays in young children with autism,” comments Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director of education research. “Of particular importance is that this model promotes a more inclusive mode of learning that could be beneficial if incorporated into a regular classroom setting.”

“Often, the benefits to typically developing children are overlooked, Dr. Murillo adds. “However, this model appears to encourage a culture of acceptance of differences and flexibility within social interactions.”

Says Dr. Wolfberg: "This flips around the idea that kids with autism are incapable of socializing or incapable of pretending. They have the same innate drive to participate with peers and to engage in playful experiences."

Plans for future research include looking more closely at how Integrated Play Groups can help children with autism communicate with their typically developing peers. Dr. Wolfberg is also adapting her program for use in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, where she traveled this fall.

For more information on the Integrated Play Group program, click here.

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