Peers can help passive communicators learn conversation skills

Raise your hand if you know a student like this: ASD diagnosis, doesn’t initiate with peers, can’t keep a conversation going, always seen sitting alone or with other students with disabilities. Do you have an effective way to help?

The authors of this study crafted a peer-mediated intervention for a small group of high-school aged “passive communicators” with ASD. They picked four “focus students” who struggled with initiating and maintaining conversations, along with 16 peer mentors. Note that all the kids involved actually wanted to participate. Four mentors were assigned to each focus student, based on who shared the same lunch period.

The article goes into lots of detail about how the whole intervention was designed and structured (enough that you could pull off something similar!), but here are some key points:

  • Mentors joined the focus student for lunch, two at a time
  • Mentors learned specific strategies to promote initiation, conversation maintenance, and follow up questions
  • Focus students received some direct instruction as well, and brainstormed potential conversation topics daily with a teacher
  • Both focus students and peers used cue cards as supports
  • Mentors got regular feedback/check-in sessions with staff throughout the process
  • After a pre-training baseline period, intervention lasted 12–16 weeks

So how did the focus students do, by the end of the intervention? They participated in more (and longer) conversations, initiated more often, and contributed more follow-up questions and comments (which weren’t directly taught!). In some cases, these gains generalized to new peers (both trained and untrained). Focus students and peers rated the process highly. And, if that wasn’t enough for you, teachers (who didn’t know about the intervention) noticed improvements in conversational skills. Even considering the small sample size, this is a really impressive result.

Okay, real talk. This model of intervention is a lot of work. You have to recruit and train peers, juggle schedules and logistics, and find a way to monitor the intervention and give/receive feedback. But as the authors point out, you get the advantage that “training can occur whenever peers and focus students are available, and intervention can be applied whenever and wherever conversation is appropriate.” The students also get the benefits of learning in a natural, inclusive (dare I say, least restrictive?) setting, and a chance to form meaningful relationships with non-disabled peers. This is big stuff. With some planning, creative thinking, and great team collaboration, a determined SLP could get it done. In many high schools, there are classes or clubs relating to community service, disability issues, inclusion, etc. These are great places to recruit and train peers mentors. And hey, if there isn’t one at your school, think about starting one! Remember, just sitting with peers isn’t enough, since “[peer-mediated intervention] must include explicit intervention strategies designed to elicit targeted outcomes.”

Bambara, L. M., Cole, C. L., Chovanes, J., Telesford, A., Thomas, A., Tsai, S.-C.,  Bilgili, I. (2018). Improving the assertive conversational skills of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder in a natural context. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 48, 1–16. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2018.01.002.