Girl Planting seeds

Father_and_SonBy Jennifer Cerbasi
April 3, 2013
Reading social cues is a difficult skill for many children with autism. As a teacher of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I often collaborated with parents to develop goals and objectives that would foster the development of social skills in these young children. Many times, parents shared with me a common goal for each of their children: "I want him to have a friend."

In a society that is consistently and intimately connected with neighbors, friends, and families, relationships are valued. This is no different in the autism community.


Many schools and social skills groups use peer models with children with autism as a means to develop age-appropriate relationships and to model appropriate social behaviors.


Peer groups often meet once or twice a week. Teachers and teaching assistants are present and typically facilitate the interaction in some way. In my peer groups, I assigned pairs or groups of students to work and play together for a few weeks or months at a time, depending on the needs and progression of skills noted in the child with autism. For example, some students benefitted from developing a relationship with one peer model over a longer period of time and others benefitted from interacting with a variety of peers.


For pairs or groups that included students with autism who exhibited enough expressive language to engage in some conversation and had mastered the skills needed to play group games, I allowed them to choose their own game. For students whose game-playing and language skills were still emerging, I selected games I knew they could play with little or no adult support. Occasionally, I assigned tasks to pairs or groups, such as creating a bulletin board or obtaining supplies from another teacher or location, in an effort to develop problem solving, negotiation, and communication skills.


Like all skills learned by children with autism, generalization is a key component of peer model interactions and social skills development. It's great that a child with autism learns to play a game with a peer sitting at a table, but the long-term goal is that he plays many games in different settings with a variety of peers. The introduction of novel games, settings, and peers is a necessary strategy for social skills development.


Prior to beginning the sessions, I met with the peer models to provide a general training about strategies for supporting peers less apt to engage in social interactions and allow them an opportunity to ask questions. Our discussions were honest and factual, while maintaining confidentiality and with respect for the children's privacy.


A 2012 study led by Dr. Connie Kasari of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment demonstrates the benefit of training typically developing peers to engage with classmates with social difficulties. The study compared two types of interventions; one in which typically developing peers were trained to support classmates with perceived social difficulties and one in which students were provided one-to-one social skills instruction. Peers trained to support those with social skills deficits were never told which of their classmates had autism.


The study found that children with autism who had classmates trained in strategies to help those with apparent social skills difficulties spent less time alone on the playground, had more classmates cite them as friends, and their teacher reported an increase in positive social behaviors as compared to the children who received the one-to-one instruction.


The goal of peer model groups isn't to teach the models to simply accept the children they are working with, it's also to positively challenge those children to engage, to communicate, and to share.


Another 2012 study, this one by Robin Sumiko Matsumoto, cited the positive effect of social interactions with typically developing peers for children with autism. This study included three toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder, all under the age of three, who engaged in peer mediated play interactions with typically developing peers. Positive effects were noted in the subjects' joint attention, social behavior, and vocal behavior. One subject was observed to not only exhibit more vocalizations, but vocalizations that were made with the intent to communicate with peers, teachers, and family members and were more clear and articulate than at the beginning of the study.


In my experience, the peer models learn and grow just as much as the children they are paired with. More than just compassion and patience, they get a real feel for the mind of a child with autism and they develop their own communication and relationship skills.


It's important to note that using peer models to develop social skills is just one strategy as part of a comprehensive approach. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder benefit from instruction that breaks down larger concepts into clear steps or rules, the use of visual reminders or cues are often helpful, and positive reinforcement, including verbal praise or a predetermined reward, are used to increase the likelihood of the positive social behavior occurring again. Peer models, however, are a crucial component of developing a society that not only accepts but respects and honors those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Jennifer is an educational consultant who works with families and educators to establish healthy and productive routines in the home and school. Adapting behavior management techniques she implemented for years as a special educator, she helps parents and teachers adopt these tools to fit their unique needs and priorities. In addition to her one-on-one consulting work, Jennifer speaks to parent and education groups on current topics in education and children's health. For more information, go to

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