Peer Initiation Strategies for Students with Autism

Excerpted from Social Skills for Students with Autism.

With these strategies, socially competent peers are taught how to initiate and encourage social interactions with children with autism in natural settings.

Peer-mediated social interaction procedures have been used for a number of years, initially with withdrawn preschool children, but also with more severely involved children with autism and mental disabilities. Socially competent peers are taught to initiate social interactions with children with autism. They are subsequently paired in natural settings for social activities. The most direct outcome of these procedures has been an increase in positive social responses by children with autism. This outcome is important because of the strong, positive association between social responses and peer acceptance.

A number of modifications to peer initiation techniques appear to increase the effectiveness of these procedures for individuals with autism. Sasso and Rude found that teaching high-status peers to interact with students with autism increased the number of positive social interactions. Moreover, untrained peers in the same setting also increased their social interactions with the students with autism. The result was modest, yet consistent increases in the response rate, initiation, and length of interactions of participants with autism.

Another modification of peer-initiated interventions involves the use of triads composed of two peers and one child with autism. The rationale for such an arrangement is that there is typically a level of “dead time” within a dyadic pairing due to the often limited communication skills of children with autism.

Triads have been viewed as a way to overcome this weakness and provide higher levels of social interactions to individuals with autism. An initial comparison of peer dyads and triads revealed that, although there were higher levels of social interactions within the triad, many of the interactions excluded the child with autism. However, interactions still occurred between socially competent participants and those with autism.

It remains unclear what imitative effects may occur for the child with autism as a result of close proximity to the social interactions of competent peers. Additional work is needed to clarify the effects of peer triad techniques.

There are several advantages to the use of peer-initiated interventions.

  • First, they demand the use of natural social interaction environments and contexts.

  • Second, valid interaction behaviors are ensured because these programs depend on the typical social interaction behaviors of socially competent peers. These techniques are also easy and time efficient in terms of instruction and administration.

  • Finally, and most important, peer-initiated interventions have resulted in increased levels of initiations and responses from both participants with autism and their competent peers, as well as evidence of longer lasting interactions.

The major weakness of peer initiation programs is that there is currently little evidence of generalization and maintenance of interactions. In addition, prompts are sometimes necessary to ensure that the competent peer remains in contact with the child with autism, which can result in the problems associated with antecedent prompting interventions.

More on Promoting Social Development for Students with Autism

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