Children with autism spectrum disorders can learn to talk and play with their peers

Children with autism spectrum disorders can learn to talk and play with their peers

When Debra Kamps first began researching how to improve the social and communication skills of children with autism in natural settings like school in the 1970s, it was hard to find children with ASD who were in classrooms with their typically developing peers.

Today, Kamps and her colleagues from KU and other universities can say with certainty that they know how teachers, speech therapists and others can teach social and communication skills to kids with ASD and their peers in the classroom, at lunch and even at recess. Kamps-led studies have been cited in national references and reports, including one by the National Research Council.

“We know how to do this and our research has shown us that it is not hard to teach people how to do it,” she said.

Recently, Kamps and her collaborators completed a large randomized control study that involved 95 students with ASD in Kansas and Washington. Of that group, 56 children participated in a two-year intervention from kindergarten through first grade in which each child was grouped with two to three typically developing classmates in a peer network, while the remaining 39 were the control group. The social peer network focused on teaching social communication skills such as requesting, commenting and saying “niceties” such as please and thank you, while playing with toys and board games.

To find out if the children were continuing to use social skills, the researchers followed up with “probes” outside of the intervention sessions at four points in time.

“We found that the children who participated in the social network not only made significant progress in social communication during the intervention, but also made many more initiations to their peers in general,” said Kamps. “Teachers also reported that

Debra Kamps, senior scientist; co-director, the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training; associate director, Juniper Gardens Children’s Project children in the intervention were more social and had better classroom behavior.”

Although peer networks are still not used routinely in schools, often due to lack of resources, Kamps hopes that the promising results from larger studies will change that. “Seeing the expression on the faces of the children when their peer buddies come to class— that’s what’s kept me going all these years.”