Helping Children with ASD Socialize with their Peers

(photo: student.societyforscience.org)

A new study has found that children on the autism spectrum can blend in with neurotypical children through Integrated Play Groups, or IPG. Integrated Play Groups were introduced by Dr. Pamela Wolfberg, professor of Autism Spectrum Studies at San Francisco State University. Dr. Wolfberg introduced IPG as a method for children with ASD to better socialize with other children.

According to Dr. Wolfberg, children with ASD have faced significant challenges in socializing with others, and therefore IPG attempts to break down these obstacles. Integrated Play Groups allow children with ASD to participate in collaborative play with their neurotypical peers in mutually engaging experiences in a natural setting. As opposed to being directed by adults on how to play, the children are given the opportunity to role-play in various situations.

This method has proven effective, witnessed first-hand by Dr. Wolfberg herself. She states, “We had a little boy who had an affinity to bang things. So the kids came up with this idea of building cardboard blocks and having an earthquake, and he was the construction worker. He was able to participate in other kids’ interest, build something more elaborate, and have a whole fantasy about it.”  According to Dr. Wolfberg, the goal of Integrated Play Groups is to move children from engaging in lower levels of play, such as simply banging something, to engaging in more symbolic play that involves reciprocal interaction with peers.

In IPG, adults assist children with autism by helping them engage in playful activities of mutual interest, but do not direct the play themselves, separating IPG from more traditional interventions. Dr. Wolfberg states, “Children learn much better how to play through interactions with peers than they do from adults, because adults are not like children anymore.” She continues, “We can definitely have wonderful interactions with kids through play, and we should. But this is qualitatively different.”

In Dr. Wolfberg’s recent study, she and her colleagues studied the effects of a 12-week IPG intervention of 48 children with ASD. Researchers studied the children during free-play activities (in which the children with ASD did not know the other children), and then after those same children participated in an Integrated Play Groups program with unfamiliar and familiar peers. After the IPG intervention, researchers found that the children’s ability to interact with kids they did not know and their ability to engage in pretend play had increased dramatically. Therefore, the IPGs were able to provide the children with transferable social and symbolic play skills. The team states, “Consistent with prior studies, the outcomes provide robust and compelling evidence that further validates the [efficiency] of the IPG model.”

In addition to building these play skills in children with autism, the IPG model also teaches typically developing children about autism and lets them learn how to form friendships with kids who might play, communicate or relate differently.

Dr. Wolfberg, who recently presented her methodology at this summer’s ICare4Autism International Autism Conference, is continuing to study how IPG interventions can break down socialization barriers for children on the spectrum, as well as further enhance and support the play and social inclusion of children with ASD.

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