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Peer solicitation to play improves the social skills of autistic children

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When a child invites a child with autism to play, the interaction could help children with autism to improve their reciprocal social interaction skills, says a study by Vanderbilt University. The study was published on Dec. 12, 2013, in the “Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.”

Researchers found that autistic children and typical peers played in a similar way when playing independently with children they had just met. Children with autism were less likely to initiate and engage in play than their peers, but they increased their interaction with others when their typical peers made simple requests.

“Most children consider playgrounds a fun place to interact with other kids, but for children with autism, this may be a very challenging and stressful environment,” said lead author Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator. “One of the key places we learn about social rules growing up is during play, but if you don’t participate, chances are you’re not going to learn the rules or be motivated to interact with other children.”

The research team observed 30 peer interactions in children between the ages of 8 to 12 on a real playground from a nearby lab overlooking the area. State-of-the art technology was used such as battery-operated microphones and four remotely operated cameras.

The participants were classified in three catogories:

  • A typically developing child there only for play
  • A typically developing child who was trained as a research assistant and called a “confederate”
  • An autistic child

The confederate was trained to invite the other children to play. Researchers directed the confederate during the play via ear microphone.

The levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured in saliva samples that were taken at the children’s homes and several times after playground interaction. The data was used to compare the stress levels of the participants during playtime with peers and in a typical environment. The autistic children showed elevated stress levels during social interaction and the children who were less motivated to play with other children had higher cortisol levels.

“Although children with autism may experience increased stress in social interactions, it was encouraging to see that reciprocal socialization can be facilitated by peer solicitation,” Corbett said. “It all starts with a simple bid to play.”

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