Preschool teachers may be able to play a significant role in helping kids with autism improve their language and social skills, a new study suggests.

Using a play-based intervention called Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement and Regulation, or JASPER, teachers in several preschool classrooms for children with autism were able to integrate the behavior therapy directly into their students’ daily routines.

Months later, there were substantial differences in progress between students on the spectrum who were in classes using the built-in technique as opposed to those relying on traditional curriculums alone, according to findings published online this month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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For the study, researchers looked at 66 children with autism ages 3 to 5 years, all of whom were enrolled in one of 12 autism classes in a large urban public school system.

Half of the classes taught the children as usual, while the others incorporated JASPER, which relies on facilitators modeling appropriate play to encourage engagement and promote shared attention to both people and objects.

Teachers in the JASPER classes were given extensive training and coached over two months as they grouped children by their developmental play level, offered appropriate toy selection and used seating arrangements to promote interaction, among other strategies. Subsequently, the researchers followed the teacher and student progress for an additional month while no training or coaching was provided.

Significantly, the study found that teachers were able to implement JASPER on par with university-based clinicians and the effects of the intervention were maintained even after the researchers stopped coaching.

“Children in the treatment group made significantly greater improvements in engagement, play, social communication and language,” said study author Connie Kasari of the University of California, Los Angeles. “The changes were clinically meaningful. These are difficult areas to improve in children, so the changes are very encouraging.”

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