Using Typical Peers as Role Models to Help Improve Social Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) typically display great difficulties in social communication and social interaction skills. These skills are core deficits which quite often impede their interactions with peers and adults. Children on the spectrum often fail to interpret social cues accurately, which can lead to unproductive and unsatisfying social experiences.

The development of appropriate social skills becomes even more important as more schools welcome children with special needs into inclusive classrooms. In such settings, children with ASD must adjust to the increased complexity of social demands such as meeting academic and instructional goals, and learning how to interact with typically developing counterparts. Unfortunately, without social skills training, students with special needs often face rejection and isolation.

Since the prevalence of ASD is increasing, evidence-based interventions in the study of social skills among children with autism are critically important. One intervention that has been successful in meeting evidence-based criteria and in improving social skills among children on the spectrum entails using typical peers as role models.

 

Using Typical Peers as Role Models for Children on the Spectrum

 

Typical peer model interventions are effective because they provide visually cued instruction with modeling for children with autism, who usually demonstrate a preference for visual learning such as the use of visual support instructional strategies. In this intervention, a typical peer model demonstrates a socially appropriate behavior, such as introducing himself or herself to a new friend, and the child on the spectrum is expected to imitate that behavior (McConnell, 2002). Adults may facilitate and monitor the intervention from close by, although they never intervene directly with the target child. These strategies help promote learning in a natural social context with peers and/or siblings by transferring learning from these models within a realistic environment.

 

Implication for Evidence-Based Intervention

 

Over the last several years, research has supported the use of typical peer models as a way to promote and enhance social skills and social interactions of children on the spectrum. It is important to acknowledge that evidence-based studies have identified typical peer model interventions as having a prolonged effect on the social interaction of children with ASD, as demonstrating increased spontaneous engagement with the people around them, and as being an emerging and effective practice.

Specifically, research supports typical peer model interventions as highly effective in promoting social interactions among children under 8 years of age diagnosed with an ASD. Further comparisons also suggest that these interventions were more effective in enhancing social responses in younger boys when older male siblings served as the peer model, especially when the intervention occurred in their home.

 

Where Do We Go from Here?

 

Increased social interactions can ultimately set the stage for other developments such as language acquisition, inclusion in educational settings, and the development of more positive and long-lasting peer relationships. Using typical peer role models corroborates the belief in the continued importance of early intervention for children with autism.

Parents and professionals should continue to focus on the importance of family involvement in the intervention process, specifically when the goal is to increase social skills and social interactions for children with autism. Parental involvement has been a crucial component of the habilitation process and of evidence-based interventions such as using typical peer models, and should continue in the home and community settings. Siblings have shown to be a major part of the process and are effective in promoting learning of social interactions in natural settings.

Families should be aware that using typical peer models is a viable, proven and evidence-based method for promoting social interactions among children with ASD. By using typical peer models, children on the spectrum are not only more motivated to learn, they are also empowered to boost their classroom participation and social interaction with their typically developing peers. These skills are vital to the development of social competence, are desirable within the family context, and are an essential ingredient in helping children with ASD build meaningful, long-lasting relationships.

Jill Krata, Ph.D., is Associate Chief of the Premier HealthCare Autism Research and Treatment Institute and Manager of Clinical Services at the YAI Autism Center. Premier HealthCare is a member of the YAI Network. For more information or for services, call 1-888-YAI-Autism or visit www.yai.org.

 

References

 

McConnell, S.R. (2002). Interventions to facilitate social interaction for young children with autism: Review of available research and recommendations for education intervention and future research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 351-372.

 

Odom, S.L., Brown, W.H., Frey, T., Karasu, N., Smith-Canter, L.L. & Strain, P.S. (2003). Evidence-based practices for young children with autism: Contributions for single-subject designs research. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 166-175.

 

Zhang, J., & Wheeler, J.J. (2011). A meta-analysis of peer-mediated interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorders. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 46(1), 62-77.

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