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New Play Method Enhances Social Skills in Autistic Kids

Update Date: Oct 27, 2014 09:05 PM EDT

Pretend play could help improve social skills in children with autism, according to a new study.

Researchers found that "Integrated Play Groups," which focus on collaborative rather than adult-directed activities, are significantly more efficient at teaching autistic children the skills they need to interact and play with their peers.

Professor Pamela Wolfberg, of Special Education and Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University, developed the technique. She explains that in "integrated Play Groups," adults help autistic children and their typically developing counterparts engage in playful activities of mutual interest. However, the adults will not play themselves.

"Children learn much better how to play through interactions with peers than they do from adults, because adults are not like children anymore," Wolfberg said in a news release. "We can definitely have wonderful interactions with kids through play, and we should. But this is qualitatively different."

The latest study, which involved 48 children with autism, found that Integrated Play Groups helped boost their ability to engage in pretend play. Researchers said that the latest study suggests that the method is successful in providing autistic children who tend to have a "very restrictive play repertoire," with transferable social and symbolic play skills.

Researchers noted that the method is to encourage autistic children to engage in more symbolic play that involves reciprocal interaction with peers.

"The earthquake-rescue theme is the most popular in San Francisco, and we had a little boy just like that, who had an affinity to bang things," Wolfberg said. "So the kids came up with this idea of building cardboard blocks and having an earthquake, and he was the construction worker. He was able to participate in other kids' interest, build something more elaborate and have a whole fantasy about it."

"This is what families want for their kids," she concluded. "This flips around the idea that kids with autism are incapable of socializing or incapable of pretending. They have the same innate drive to participate with peers and to engage in playful experiences, but what has been happening is we have not been able to tap into their potential."

The findings were published online Sept. 18 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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