Learning to socialize with autism

Kids go undercover on the playground to help with research


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For most kids, playing on the playground is a great place to have fun and one of the best ways to learn how to interact with other kids. However, for the 1 in 68 kids with autism, playgrounds can cause stress. Autism can hinder a child's ability to socialize. Now research has kids going undercover to see if we can change that.

"We're trying to like play with the kids and have fun. Like it's a normal day," said 8-year-old researcher, Calvin Hawes.

Psychiatry Professor at Vanderbilt University, Blythe Corbett, PhD, is leading the study and looking at how children with autism spectrum disorder play and interact with typically developing kids.

"So we can better understand what things help them to interact but also what things are getting in the way of being able to play with others," she explained.

To test this, researchers took saliva samples from kids with ASD, like Ben Solsvig, to measure the stress hormone cortisol.

"We wouldn't be able to tell from a lot of our kids, how stressed they really are when they are interacting with others," said Corbett.

Higher cortisol means Ben's less motivated to play with other kids.

"It depends on how fun they are. I wouldn't want to play with a kid if he's all boring," Ben said.

"The good news is though, that all it takes is a simple invitation for a peer to invite them, to ask them to play. And that can significantly improve their willingness to engage with others," Corbett explained.

A simple invitation could make all the difference for a child.

Corbett says the study highlights the importance of bringing typically developing peers together with kids with autism spectrum disorder in all social settings. Kids with ASD are then able to learn that it's safe to interact with others.

The research was funded by the national institute of mental health.

Additional Information:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of complex disorders of brain development. There is a large variation between severities of cases. People with autism usually have difficulty with social interactions and communication. Often intellectual disabilities are seen as well as trouble with motor skills. Paying attention and physical health problems can often be seen. By the age of 2 or 3 there should be signs to show that a person has ASD. As of 2014, about 1 percent of children ages 3 through 17 are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. About one in 68 births are of someone with this disorder, which equals over a million Americans who have this disability. (Source: http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/facts-and-statistics/)

SOCIAL INTERACTION AND INSTRUCTION: There are many challenges that come with helping someone with autism deal with social challenges. There are a few ways to help a child when addressing social skills.

  • Free play is hard for children with autism to deal with so by creating structure they tend to fit in better
  • Anxiety is common with social situations and can often cause them to avoid the situation or act inappropriately
  • Use reinforcement to help shape positive social behavior so use praise and celebrate what is being done correctly
  • Model correct social skills so that they can see how things should be done
  • Discuss what is appropriate to talk about and what personal space is

(Source: http://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/documents/family-services/improve_social.pdf)

SCHOOLYARD FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM: Researchers are working to develop playgrounds that are therapeutic for children with autism. These playgrounds include a music garden of outdoor instruments, edible gardens as well as greenhouses, sensory playgrounds to help with sensory stimulation, alcoves to allow children a place to escape to if they feel overwhelmed and a traditional central play area. These playgrounds are designed to help with research as well as to help these children socially develop, and be more comfortable in this type of environment.
(Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120507131944.htm)