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Autism Therapy More Successful When Peers Involved Too

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Kids with autism fare significantly better socially when their typically developing classmates are taught how to interact with them, new research suggests.

Often students with autism are targeted for social skills training. But that alone may not be the best approach, according to a study published this week in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

For the study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles looked at 60 kids with autism ages 6 to 11, all of whom were in mainstream classes at least 80 percent of the day.

Some of the children received one-on-one social skills training from a professional. In other cases, a professional taught a group of three typically developing kids from the child’s class how to engage with students who have social difficulties but did not interact with the child who had autism.

Meanwhile, other students in the study benefited from both approaches — individual training and peer training. A control group did not experience either social skills intervention.

Ultimately, the researchers found that children whose peers received training were less likely to spend time alone on the playground as compared to those who received only individual training. In addition, kids who benefited from peer training were more likely to have classmates say that they were friends.

Moreover, the benefits of peer training appear to stick around. Even when kids advanced to new classrooms with different students, researchers found that the children with autism who experienced peer training continued to see improved socialization.

The findings suggest that focusing on typically developing peers in addition to the child with autism may offer the best results, the researchers said. What’s more, they indicated that individual social skills intervention may only be beneficial if professionals also work with the child’s peers.

“Real life doesn’t happen in a lab, but few research studies reflect that,” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund the study. “As this study shows, taking into account a person’s typical environment may improve treatment outcomes.”

Despite the improvements seen with peer intervention, however, the researchers said it’s not a total fix. Children with autism continued to say they had few friends and struggled with issues like taking turns even when their classmates were taught how to work with them.

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