University of Missouri - Columbia.
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Posted 02.17.06

MU Researcher Provides a Framework for Developing 'Social Competence' in Children with Autism

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Research shows that children with autism lack the social interaction skills needed to build and maintain friendships with their peers. The repetitive behavior they exhibit and the difficulty they find in initiating and responding to social interaction leads many of these children to become socially isolated. This negatively impacts the quality of the child's life and leads to problems in other developmental skill areas, such as speech. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher recently co-authored a book that provides a framework for increasing the quality and quantity of the social interactions of children with autism.

Janine Scitcher."It is essential to identify what combination of environments and level of instruction are most appropriate toward developing social competence," said Janine Stichter, associate professor of special education in the MU College of Education and associate director of the Thompson Center for Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, whose new book is How to Teach Social Skills and Plan for Peer Social Interactions with Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Stichter suggests school professionals determine if the social problems experienced by children with autism are the result of an acquisition problem, a performance or fluency problem, or competing behavior. An acquisition problem occurs when a student is missing a step in performing a social skill sequence, while a performance problem occurs when a student has the skill but does not know how to use it or uses it incorrectly. Competing behaviors are ones that result in interference with the demonstration of social skills.

Once the type of problem is identified, a suitable strategy for intervention is devised. The strategies Stichter outlined rely on the cooperation of adults at home, teachers, peers and the child. Stichter gives the example of a child with a performance deficit. The child is able to successfully take turns playing a one-on-one game, such as checkers, but during less structured activities such as basketball with peers, they "hog the ball."

"This type of deficit would be best supported by continued activities with peers in naturally occurring situations, as opposed to a one-on-one session with a counselor away from the very activities that create the challenge," Stichter said.

Another intervention strategy is social reading techniques, which use situations from a child's actual experience to visually present social information and teach social competence. A social script strategy uses short stories written by parents, professionals or peers that provide context cues for a directed behavior.

"These stories tap into an autistic child's typical strength, visual processing, while creating a structure and predictability to an often unpredictable social situation," Stichter said. "The techniques, suggested in the book, prompt this behavior that can help autistic children build the necessary social skills."

Social autopsies allow students to diagnose specific problems they need to work on for the next interaction by reviewing a previous social interaction. In a school environment, incidental teaching is a technique employed that uses a person's interests and natural motivation. There is a focus on following the student's lead regarding interests within daily activities, because children with autism often have difficulty maintaining interest in teacher or peer-led activities, Stichter said.



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