Researches at Vanderbilt University studied autistic children and those without autism interacting on the playground. They found that the two groups in fact play similarly when they are engaged in independent play with a child they just met.
However, overall, the children with autism initiated and took part of less play than those who don’t have autism.
Lead author Blythe Corbett, explained that for children with autism the playground may be very challenging and stressful, and therefore not necessarily a fun place. She also stressed the importance of the playground as a place where children learn about social rules, but it’s hard to learn these rules when you don’t participate.
This is why it’s significant that the researchers in this study discovered that just by simple requests to play, other children can help increase the interactions autistic children have with their peers.
This highlights the importance peers have in social interaction: it only takes one child to prompt other children to interact, whether they have autism or not.
For the study, researchers examined more than 30 peer interactions on a playground, with the children ranging in age from 8 to 12 years old. They used microphones and cameras and observed from a lab overlooking the playground.
One typically developing child was trained as a research assistant (dubbed a “confederate”), one was there for play only, and the third child being observed was one with autism. The confederate was trained to ask the other two children to play, and had an ear microphone to receive instructions from the researchers.
The researchers also measured the stress level of participants in a typical environment versus when they played with peers. They took saliva samples of the stress hormone cortisol when they children were home and took samples after playground interactions. Autistic children were shown to have elevated stress during social interactions, and the stress levels were higher in children who showed less motivation to play with others.
The important thing to take away from this study is that although children with autism may feel more stress in social interactions, reciprocal socialization can be facilitated by peer solicitation—simply asking if they want to play.
By Rachel Schranck