Enhancing social skills of kindergarten children with Autism through the training of multiple peers as tutors

With summer now over and children back at school, most parents are eager to provide their children with successful strategies for handling the many social opportunities available during the school year. And while parents, caregivers, and interventionists are commonly the primary teachers of social skills, without the consideration of peers' interests and behavior during social interactions, our children's newly acquired skills may fail to generalize or be reinforced in the natural setting by peers. Thankfully, turning to the body of research on peer-mediated social skills interventions offers us a variety evidence-based strategies for making the most of peer play.

In one such study, Laushey and Heflin (2000) examined the effects of using typically-developing children as "peer buddies" with children with autism. Participants included two 5-year-old male students from two different kindergarten classes. Each boy met the criteria for autism or PDD-NOS. A research design in which treatment was implemented, withdrawn, and implemented again was used in order to determine the effects of the intervention on levels of peer-directed social initiations.

In the treatment phase, a "buddy system" was implemented during free play center time for all students in both classes.Before the start of the treatment phase, a clinician discussed with the children how differences exist among people; for example, that different people prefer to play with different toys or some people are more talkative than others. All children were then told there were three things they should do with their buddies in order to be good play partners. These included: 1) staying with your buddy, 2) playing with your buddy, and 3) talking to your buddy. Pairs of children who were noted to follow the instructions had their names placed in a drawing for a prize. Four target social skills were recorded, including requesting preferred items and responding to the answer given, appropriately gaining attention, waiting for a turn, and gazing in the direction of the speaker.

Results reported by the authors suggest that the percentage of the four target social skills significantly increased with the implementation of the buddy-system. Specifically, use of the appropriate target social skills were noted to increase by 46% for one child and by 38% for the other child. In order to determine if it was the intervention that caused the increase in target behaviors, the treatment was withdrawn after six sessions and the target social skills were again measured when the children were simply in close proximity to one another in their classroom. Upon withdrawing the buddy-system, both boys demonstrated decreases in requesting behavior, gaining attention, waiting for a turn, and gazing in the direction of the speaker. Once the buddy intervention was re-implemented, gains in these social skills were once again observed. Additionally, during the second implementation of the treatment, the students with autism were observed to engage in the target social skills with a variety of peers, indicating that generalization had occurred. When the long term effects of this intervention were analyzed for one of the boys, generalization of these skills was observed in his first grade class. As such, when specific teaching and structure were embedded into social interactions, children with autism (and their peers) engaged in a significantly higher percentage of appropriate social skills, thereby increasing their opportunities to establish meaningful relationships with their peers.

So, what can we, as clinicians and parents, take away from this study and use in everyday social opportunities with our children? One of the key findings in this body of research is that simply putting children in close proximity does not increase social behavior. Rather, specific training and /or intervention is necessary, and engaging peers in the process may be useful. Some ideas include:

  • Arrange for frequent social opportunities by setting up play dates, taking your child to the park or the beach where other children are present, or enrolling your child in a group activity (such as a gym class).
  • Look for friendly peers who may be interested in acting as your child's "buddy" in that setting
  • When around peers, prime your child and their buddy what they can do to be "buddies" - stay together, play together, and talk to each other, as in the current study (or other skills that your child is currently learning).
  • Bring preferred activities to the social interaction. By having fun and engaging in preferred activities, both children might be more interested in playing and sustaining play.
  • Provide feedback and reinforcement throughout the social interaction and play. When you see your child doing something you want to see more of (e.g., looking at their peer, talking to their peer, etc.), tell him. A simple thumbs up, a smile, or a token can have wonderful lasting effects on the social behaviors we want to increase.
  • Don't forget to reinforce the peer's behavior as well!

By providing our children with increased peer-mediated social interactions, we are targeting these skills in a very natural manner which may increase the likelihood of generalization. Also, by utilizing peers as trainers, we are giving our children the chance to build lasting and meaningful friendships.

Laushey, M. & Heflin, L.J. (2000). Enhancing social skills of kindergarten children with autism through the training of multiple peers as tutors. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 3 (3), 183-193.