Sunday, September 27, 2020
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Children with autism can learn to be social

A controlled study of 95 young children with autism spectrum disorders has shown that peer network intervention that included peer mediation and direct instruction was effective because students in the intervention group

  • initiated more contact with peers
  • showed significant growth for total communications
  • grew in language and adaptive communication
  • were rated higher in prosocial skills by their teachers

The study’s lead author, Debra Kamps, a senior scientist at the University of Kansas Life Span Institute, has been studying effective ways to improve the social and communication skills of children with autism since the 1970s, according to a press release from the University of Kansas. Early on, she had trouble finding kids with ASD who were in classrooms with other students, so peer intervention was not easily studied.

But now, she says, we know how teachers, speech therapists, and others can teach social and communication skills to kids with ASD and their peers in the classroom, at lunch, and even at recess. “Our research has shown us that it is not hard to teach people how to do it,” she said.

A video from their project

Here’s the rest of the press release:

The four-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, involved 95 students with ASD in Kansas and Washington. Of that group, 56 children participated in a two-year intervention from kindergarten through first grade in which each child was grouped with two to three typically developing classmates in a peer network, while the remaining 39 were the control group.

The social peer network focused on teaching social communication skills such as requesting, commenting and saying “niceties” such as please and thank you while playing with toys and board games.

To find out if the children were continuing to use social skills, the researchers followed up with probes outside of the intervention sessions at four points in time.

“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,” Kamps said. “Teachers also reported that children in the intervention were more social and had better classroom behavior.”

Although peer networks are still not used routinely in schools, often due to lack of resources, Kamps hopes that the promising results from larger studies will change that, and she said that some teachers who participated in the study have adopted the Peer Networks intervention in their classrooms.

“Seeing the expression on the faces of the children when their peer buddies come to class—that’s what’s kept me going all these years,” she said.

Kamps is also the director of the University of Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training established in 2008 with public and private funds. Kamps-led studies have been cited in national references and reports, including one by the National Research Council.

Article reference

Debra Kamps, Kathy Thiemann-Bourque, Linda Heitzman-Powell, Ilene Schwartz, Nancy Rosenberg, Rose Mason, and Suzanne Cox. “A Comprehensive Peer Network Intervention to Improve Social Communication of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Randomized Trial in Kindergarten and First Grade.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, December 2014. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-014-2340-2

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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