March 28th, 2012 | (1)
OAR-funded researcher Audrey Blakeley-Smith, PhD, is an assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Colorado, School of Medicine. She is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in developmental disabilities, most specifically autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Through funding from OAR, Dr. Blakeley-Smith is collaborating with local school districts on strategies to reduce rejection and facilitate social interaction between students with ASD and their peers. She also is a co-author of the treatment manual, Facing Your Fears, which is designed to reduce anxiety in children with ASD. The Facing Your Fears research program received funding support from OAR in 2006 with Judy Reaven, PhD, as the primary investigator.
With issues of confidentiality being so critical in school environments, many general education teachers struggle with the issue of how to talk to their students about a classmate with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Often times, teachers simply don’t address the issue as they don’t want to call unnecessary attention to challenging behavior or highlight the classmate’s differences.
I have learned that failing to discuss these issues with students is missing an opportunity to capitalize on students’ natural curiosity, kindness, and creativity. By preschool, children can identify their fellow classmate with ASD as “different.” By elementary school, students not only know that their classmate with ASD is different, but they are frequently puzzled by their peer’s behavior. Why does their classmate do so well in one activity, yet fall apart in another? Why is their classmate so knowledgeable about the solar system or dinosaurs, yet not able to understand the rules of a “simple” game of four square?
Without explanations regarding challenging or unusual behaviors in combination with the remarkable strengths and resiliencies, students are left to wonder what may be the cause for such behavior. And often times, students may make inaccurate or negative attributions about unusual behavior.
How Do We Encourage and Support?
Over the past few years, thanks to two treatment grants from OAR, I have collaborated with elementary school teachers to address the aforementioned challenges through the use of peer-mediated interventions. Peer-mediated interventions involve the use of typically developing peers to support the social interaction of children with ASD. While peer-mediated interventions have emerged as the social skills intervention of choice for children with ASD, my teacher colleagues and I struggled to know how best to target the negative attitudes and rejection that we observed in school.
How should we support students in understanding their classmate with ASD without disclosing their diagnosis? Should we include the children who tend to misunderstand the behavior of their classmate the most and reject and tease? How could we encourage increased interaction on the playground without knowing exactly what activities would be a good match and what strategies would best address challenging behaviors?
Together, we attempted to problem solve these challenges and embarked on the following steps:
- Peer selection: We selected one peer who tended to target or reject the student with ASD, and four peers who could serve as positive role models. We included a mix of boys and girls. We obtained permission from parents and conducted all activities during lunch and/or recess so as not to interfere with academics.
- Assessment of peers’ views on classmate with ASD: We used a modified circle of friends format to determine central people in each student’s life. Peers were able to quickly identify the differences between their circle of friends and the circle of friends for their classmate with ASD. Typically, the classmate with ASD had fewer peers in their “inner circle” and more adults in their “outer circles.” They reflected on what this would feel like and went on to identify obstacles for friendship formation and playground interaction. Commonly identified obstacles (or problem behaviors) were that their classmate was “bossy” or the “rules police,” insisted on going first in games, had meltdowns when he/she lost, talked too much about one topic, and struggled to play the games.
- Cognitive reframing: After selecting the top three behavioral obstacles for each student with ASD, the students began to discuss (with the support of their teacher) the reasons why their classmate might be engaging in these behaviors. Without identifying the student’s ASD diagnosis, discussion was still able to take place regarding brain differences, individual strengths and challenges, and learning styles. Negative attitudes were directly targeted (e.g., it’s not that he is trying to be bossy or the “rules police,” it’s that he doesn’t understand how rules change; he has trouble thinking flexibly). Identified obstacles were discussed in terms of challenges that each student with ASD faced as he or she was learning the foundations of friendship. The challenges faced by the student with ASD were each likened to their own challenges (e.g., learning how to do math) in order to capitalize on strategies that they found effective (e.g., receiving coaching, encouragement, and the chance to practice).
- Problem solving and behavioral practice: Given the identified obstacles, students were supported in problem solving how best to coach and support their classmate with ASD in naturally occurring activities of shared interest on the playground. After activities were selected, role play took place to specifically problem solve how to handle the top identified barriers (e.g., before we play the game, we need to explain the rules so that he or she understands; we need to have a rotating judge so that he or she understands that different people make decisions on who is “out”) and then the student with ASD was included for weekly practice on the playground. Weekly practice included task analyzing and coaching the specifics of the game and implementing strategies. Practice took place across the semester with activities/strategies changing as needed and generalization peers included.
What We Discovered
We made these discoveries over the course of our work:
- The behaviors that we as adults assumed were most off putting to peers were not always the behaviors that peers identified as problematic. And more importantly, these behaviors did not need to be eliminated for increases in playground participation to take place or for rejection to decrease.
- Peers quickly replaced rejection with discussed strategies to support their classmate with ASD (e.g., using rock/paper/scissors to decide who goes first, practicing cool dance moves while waiting for a turn, etc.). Strategies generated by the students potentially had more staying power than had they been instructed by adults.
- Playground interaction increased (as observed by playground coders), though interaction never reached the same level as peers. Peer rejection on the playground was reduced significantly.
- Quality of life and “fun” ratings sometimes improved more for the peers who initially were rejecting their classmate with ASD than they did for the students with ASD. Anecdotally, peers who initially tended to reject their classmate with ASD often became their biggest advocates and supporters.
The use of classroom peers was observed to promote behavior and attitude change in a natural playground setting. It potentially provided peers with greater autonomy, more options for engagement than simply rejection, and less dependence on adults to facilitate social change. And it provided students with ASD the opportunity to receive feedback from peers and practice playground activities in a supportive, natural environment. This research supports the need for a balanced approach of skill building for the student with ASD and enhanced understanding and problem solving for their peers.
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