“Those around a person with autism must change first in order for change to occur in one with autism” (Schlieder, Maldonado & Baltes, 2014). Autism seems to be a buzzword in and out of medical, educational, and political conversations. Autism is more than just a buzzword. It is a formal diagnosis with a broad spectrum of meaning. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a social disorder that affects each individual differently. When you have met one person with autism, you have simply met one person with autism. When thinking about autism and all that it entails, we must consider how we can best create opportunities to interact and teach effectively to those who are affected. There are several interventions that provide insight to the world of autism and give us a sense of connection when working with those on the autism spectrum. By considering various interventions, we can often find something that works and is effective for the individual we are working with. Peer-mediated interventions are an effective intervention when working with individuals on the autism spectrum. These interventions utilize general education peers who are readily available, provide students on the spectrum the opportunity for inclusion in the general education classroom, and have proven positive short-term and long-term outcomes for all individuals involved in the intervention. Although these interventions are still being researched and developed, the progressive outcomes are highly motivational.
When working with students with disabilities, diverse challenges arise between general education and special education setting transitions. As educators, we must seek ways to streamline these transitions in an effort to create ease for our students and those who interact with them. Transitions can be extremely difficult for students with autism spectrum disorder. Students often benefit from warnings prior to transitions, visual schedules, and verbal prompting throughout the day. Staffing issues can make these needs very difficult to attend to at times, but teachers still strive to meet the needs of all their students. There are multitudes of great techniques that help students receiving special education services to be included in their classrooms for more extensive parts of their day. Several children receive support from paraprofessionals or educational assistants. Although adults as interventionists can provide appropriate support for students, researchers (Henry, 2017, p. 40) noted that “adults as interventionists can have a negative impact on the overall success of interventions. Adults provide a discriminative stimulus for all students to interact with each other.” When thinking about this factor, perhaps there is a more effective interventionist available within the school setting.
Peer-mediated interventions are an Evidence Based Practice (EBP) for promoting social communication in younger children, primarily showing positive results in children ages birth to eight years old (Cole, 2015). The overall idea of peer-mediated interventions is that students on the autism spectrum spend the majority of their time during the school day in their general education classroom with their general education peers. The purpose of peer-mediated interventions is to help teach peers to promote academic, social, and communication outcomes with disabilities by providing support in skill acquisition and an increase in participation in academic and social events (Bell & Carter, 2013). There are various names for peer-mediated interventions, some which are coined by school groups, parent groups, or community groups. A particular peer-mediated intervention that is implemented and studied by Walden University is termed, “Circle of Friends.” This peer-mediated intervention is based on a social constructivist approach and is defined as an educational approach that facilitates the inclusion of children with disabilities in a school community with the ability to proactively support students with individual needs (Schlieder, Maldonado & Baltes, 2014). Regardless of what the peer-mediated intervention is titled, all of these interventions share a goal of using direct instruction partnered with peer-mediation to show improvement in children’s communication with one another (Henry, 2017).
My interest in special education grew when I worked in a residential school in Duluth, Minnesota. I was exposed to varyingly different student situations and scenarios. I learned about the importance of what students are exposed to at home and the importance of how we respond to behaviors. I also learned about the importance of positive relationships at school and the minimal amount of time we get with our students. Relationships are the cornerstone to student engagement, learning, and overall success. Students need positive relationships with adults, but equally as importantly, with peers. Relationships and social skills are a difficult thing for students on the autism spectrum and are something we are constantly working on in our social skills groups. However, we work on these skills in small groups of students who all struggle in this area.
As I saw success with peer-mediated intervention in the special education classroom, I began to do test runs with peer-mediated interventions in the general education setting. With the unique setting of our entire building being open concept and very technologically focused, it can be very daunting for my students on the autism spectrum to independently be in the general education setting. I started with having them go more often for more desirable activities such as movies, games, science projects, or read-alouds. When I began seeing success in this area, I would push students more to go to math lessons or reading lessons, preferably more interactive ones. This is a place where I am working on continuing to develop as these can be challenging for students. It is difficult to find the balance between peers being able to be productive interventionists without missing out on the lesson.
The goal of this action research was to increase positive peer relationships across settings, increase student engagement in the general education setting, and increase student independence. Throughout this intervention, students have been able to build progressive peer and adult relationships across settings. I have seen a monumental increase in the confidence of my students, to the point where they have been able to lead lessons in the general education math classes, lead groups in physical education class, and speak out in front of their peers.
After spending six months working out the details of peer-mediated interventions, I can confidently conclude that these techniques were extremely progressive for my students with special needs. Overall, my students were more engaged in both the resource room and general education classroom at this point in the school year compared to the beginning of the school year. Though countless challenges arose throughout this process, I am very pleased with the results that manifested from this action research study. My students were able to appropriately respond to both peers and adults in the general and special education setting the majority of the time. Behavior challenges also lessened as the year went on. I am confident that my students have greatly benefitted from this strategy and plan to continue implementation in the next school year.
Teala Groski, Med, Teaching and Learning, is a Special Education Teacher for the Stewartville Public Schools and an Autism Consultant. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carter, E. (2013). Peer-Mediated Support Strategies. Tennessee Department of Education, Vanderbilt University.
Cole, C. (2015). Peer-Mediated Intervention for Social Communication Difficulties in Adolescents with Autism: Literature Review and Research Recommendations. International Journal of Medical, Health, Biomedical, Bioengineering and Pharmaceutical Engineering, 9(4), pp.347-350.
Henry, C. (2017). Using Peer Mediated Interventions to Enhance the Social Skills of Pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. REACH Journal of Special Needs Education in Ireland, 30(1), pp.36-44.
Schlieder, M., Maldonado, N. and Baltes, B. (2014). An Investigation of “Circle of Friends” Peer-Mediated Intervention for Students with Autism. The Journal of Social Change, 6(1), pp.27-40.