Peers are key for autistic kids, researcher says
Talk will address research at an Irvine conference this weekend.
The best way to help autistic students fit in at school is by training the child's typical peers, says Connie Kasari, a professor of psychological studies in education at UCLA.
Kasari will be speaking about peer interventions at a lecture sponsored by Children's Hospital of Orange County, UCI and the Grandparents Autism Network on Saturday.
Her work focuses on developing social-emotional skills in atypical children, and her most recent research studied social interventions in public school settings. She followed 60 elementary students with high-functioning autism for six weeks, and found that providing social skills training and one-on-one aides to autistic children isn't enough. The research suggests that helping autistic children is a greater issue than can be solved by parents and schools working together, but requires larger public policy reform.
She spoke to us about the research. More information about the conference Saturday, including other topics that will be discussed, is here: www.ocregister.com/articles/autism-grandparents-information-2291676-conference-re
Q. Tell me about the research you do.
A. I've done a lot of experiments with students trying to understand their feelings about their friends, and feelings of loneliness in schools. I'm going to talk about our randomized trial, short term, 60 kids with autism, to try to figure out which treatment is most affective in keeping the kids connected to the social networks in the class. We really think of those high-functioning kids as being underserved in the public schools because they often get very little support.
Q. You had the most success working with typical peers. What does that mean?
A. We would identify three typical kids in the classroom. Parents would give consent and then we would talk to those kids about how to be a good friend. We didn't even identify for them the children with autism as the kid we were targeting. Those typical peers make a difference.
When we worked with a child with autism alone, it was no better than just inclusion. Those kids didn't really change in the course of six weeks of intervention.
The implications of this are, we think that having one-on-one aides in classrooms stigmatizes and marks autistic students. So maybe our best intervention is to intervene with the classroom as a whole, the teachers, the aides, the students. While our kids need some social skills intervention, if the environment isn't ready to receive them, it goes nowhere.
Q. This isn't something a parent can ask for in an IEP meeting, though. What is the motivation for schools to take this on?
A. In the end, it's more cost effective. We recommend they have an autism consultant they employ to handle these things. There are some good examples that in school districts, having that person changes things from the inside, as opposed to having outside agencies providing all the one-on-one aides, which doesn't seem to be a very effective practice.
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