Teaching peers to communicate with children with autism using AAC

When supporting children with ASD who use SGDs (speech generating devices), have you considered incorporating their peers into social interactions? This study reveals that training typically-developing peers can lead to reciprocal communication in the classroom.

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We’ve talked before about teaching peers of preschoolers with ASD to use PECS. In this study, three typically-developing peers are taught to communicate with three minimally verbal children with ASD in the preschool classroom. A GoTalk 4+, a four-button SGD, was available during the communication exchanges. The preschoolers with ASD had not used the SGD prior to participating in the study. 

Using a “Stay-Play-Talk” social intervention, peers learned to 1) stay at the table with the child with ASD, 2) play by sharing toys or taking turns, and 3) talk to their friend, using the SGD as an option for communicating. The researchers also describe teaching the peers “Ways to be a Good Buddy” and outline the training steps used during three 30-minute training sessions.

In this study, each peer was paired with one child with autism during a six-minute classroom activity (centers, snack time, or requesting a toy) twice per week. A total of 15 to 18 activities were observed over 10 weeks.  A researcher led a social interaction between the peer and child with ASD and showed them a Stay-Play-Talk visual support, prior to stepping back from the pair in order to observe. During the observation, the implementer used least-to-most prompting to encourage interaction whenever 30 seconds without communication occurred.

As a result of the intervention, the peers successfully learned to use the SGD with their friend with ASD. More importantly, the children with ASD demonstrated more initiations and spontaneous communication. The results were observed across contexts, although snack and requesting toys were more successful than centers.

Because all children had access to an SGD during the intervention, more balanced and natural communication occurred. This is in contrast to the authors’ findings when teaching PECS, in which the peer takes on the “responder” role by taking a picture symbol from their friend. More research is needed to understand how social contexts influence peer interaction and to examine across a variety of communication skills.

Thiemann-Bourque, K., McGuff, S., & Goldstein, H. (2017). Training peer partners to use a speech-generating device with classmates with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Exploring communication outcomes across preschool contexts. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2017_JSLHR-L-17-0049