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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Social Skills Training in Young Children

This is an excerpt from Adapted Physical Activity Across the Life Span by Carol Ann Leitschuh & Marquell Johnson.

Research has been building regarding interventions employed to help children with ASD succeed socially in classrooms. Kennedy and Shukla reported that “(a) social interactions can be taught and learned, (b) social interventions in typical settings can be successfully accomplished, and (c) substantial positive outcomes accrue” (1995, p. 21).

Boyd and colleagues (2013) compared the TEACCH and LEAP programs for efficacy in promoting social skill improvement in young children with autism (three to five years of age). They were compared to comprehensive treatment models used in special education.

TEACCH strategies include accommodations to the environment such as visual schedules and work systems to promote child learning (Hume and Odom, 2007; Mesibov and Shea, 2010). Attention is given to the physical structure of the classroom. For the student, schedules are visual and depict where, when, and what the activity is. A schedule contains visual information for the learning tasks. Schools usually offer the TEACCH program in segregated classrooms away from typically developing peers. When physical educators have used the TEACCH approach, they work across ages and reorganize the environment in a small group situation and provide teacher-directed workstations for instruction in physical activity (e.g., Todd, 2012).

The LEAP instructional program is offered in an inclusive educational program where same-age peers typically mediate the social instruction and intervention. Focus is on systematic efforts to increase the target child’s on-task behavior, their use of appropriate language (versus echolalia, threats, and name-calling), and their positive interactions with peers (e.g., sharing materials, assisting one another, and engaging in verbal exchange). Additional focus is on decreasing deviant behavior (e.g., hitting, self-injury, screaming). The essential element of this program is reinforcement contingencies. Although the goal differs in a lesson for the peer helpers (typically developing children) from the lesson for a child with ASD, both are rewarded for meeting their goals. Both the peer helper and the peer with ASD receive instruction on eliciting appropriate responses.

Comprehensive Treatment Model
The comprehensive treatment model is a program using accepted practice in early childhood special education. TEACCH, LEAP, and the comprehensive treatment models were all reported to meet high standards for competence in the respective program. Boyd and others (2013) found no significant differences among the programs; all produced positive gains in social skill for the children. In their study, all the children made gains over the school year with each group showing significant positive change by decreasing ASD severity and increasing communication and fine motor skills. In the end, the researchers reported that the teachers were all highly qualified in special education and employed similar practices found to effective when educating children with ASD.

Leading researchers in ASD report that early intervention is imperative to increase social and communication skills (Wetherby, 2012). Waiting to intervene in social skills for children with ASD only compounds the problems. A simple skill of a mother gaining a two-year-old’s attention when talking with the child briefly can relieve the cumulative negative risk in the development of communication for that toddler. Cumulative risk is known to derail development if risk factors in development are not identified and addressed (Bronfenbrenner, 1977).

Social Skills Training in School-Age Children

In the past, IEP teams have placed the student with autism in physical education to develop their social skills. Deficits in social skills are diagnostic markers for ASD, and therefore social skills are not the strength of students with ASD. With children with ASD, social skills for physical activity in their school and community are actively taught.

When working to instruct in social skills, there is debate as to whether social skills need to be taught separate from the motor skills. Such separation is advocated by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina. In an integrated setting, supports need to be in place to teach the movement skills, the routines of the class, and the specific activity. Some basic communication skills and social skills may be added to the learning of the motor skills used in a game. Even with typically developing children, we often break down an activity by first learning the motor skills. Games demand social skill. In time, the child with ASD can use his or her social skills for the game. For example, the student can use a high-five gesture instead of verbalizing “Good job” to their teammates. Coordinate with the SLP and the special education teacher to design the social skill expectations in PE for the student.

The most effective way for the student with ASD to learn the social skill is to have it taught in the context of the naturally occurring environment of the skill—where the student would use it in their day, in their activity. That said, the student may do better if preteaching a specific skill is conducted before the skills are used in the general physical education class or other physical activity environment. Due to neurological differences in processing of visual information for the student with ASD, observing others use the skill in a game doesn’t carry over to the student with ASD using the social skill.

The skills can be taught if they are presented in a concrete manner. For example, when using the term good friend, instruct about specific behaviors that demonstrate being a good friend in a given situation. Demonstrate and give ample opportunity to repeat the skill. There could be a gym poster that says “Everyone is a good friend when . . .” Then, list three actions that demonstrate this.

Social Skills Training in  School-Age Children

More Excerpts From Adapted Physical Activity Across the Life Span