Peer-mediated Social Skills Training for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
The 2-year pilot project will expand and extend peer-mediated treatment to adolescents with ASD and their general education peers. A novel aspect of this program is that training will be facilitated by the peers (“mentors”) of students with ASD to promote generalization of skills learned. Findings will be used to leverage external funding for further expansion and replication of the treatment.
A total of 32 high school students with ASD and 32 of their peers from two racially and ethnically diverse urban school districts will participate. Half the participants will attend the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (student population of 75,000) and half will attend the Allentown (PA) School District (student population of 18,500). Students will participate in the treatment across multiple settings in their school environments to promote generalization of acquired social skills. Minimum participant selection criteria will include enrollment in grades 10-12, a primary diagnosis of ASD, speech of 5-6 word phrases or complete sentences, a functional reading level (e.g., reads menus and road signs), inclusion in at least one general education class, and identified social-communication skill deficits. Peer mentors will be recruited based on teacher recommendation, interest, and availability.
Treatment will involve three components. Component 1 (teaching valued social skills) will be based on previous peer-mediated social skills research conducted with students with developmental disabilities with additional interviews of teachers and students with and without ASD to ensure socially valid skills and individualized interventions within the context of the high school environment. Intervention components may include direct instruction, modeling, role plays, opportunities for practice, and corrective reinforcement. Peer mentors will help facilitate skills training to promote generalization of newly acquired skills and to serve as role models of appropriate social and communicative behavior. Component 2 (supporting peer mentors) will involve ensuring that peer mentors and their classmates with ASD are provided sufficient support, monitoring, communication, and feedback from participating peer mentors. In addition, ongoing peer mentor clubs will be established to support the social needs of mentors and their classmates with ASD. Component 3 (providing inclusive opportunities for social interaction) will involve teaching peer mentors to serve as social brokers in order to expand opportunities for social interaction between students with and without ASD (e.g., peer mentors inviting students with ASD to sit at the lunch table with them and their friends) in typical high school activities.
Predicted outcomes of the project will be relevant to multiple members of the autism community. Students with ASD can expect to learn new social interaction skills that may result in more friends and greater participation in general education activities. Peer mentors will learn to support the inclusion of their peers with ASD in everyday school life and will gain new friendships with them. Parents of students with ASD and peer mentors will benefit by knowing their children attend schools that welcome individuals with a range of diverse skills and abilities. Teachers will have the opportunity to learn a new strategy that will help students with ASD be more accepted at school and more successful in their peer interactions. Finally, researchers will benefit by the addition of a knowledge base of empirically-based strategies to improve outcomes for adolescents with ASD, a population that has received limited research attention, particularly in the everyday setting of high schools.