The Effects of Teaching Play Strategies on Social Interaction for a Child with Autism: A Case Study

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this case study, research was conducted in an integrated preschool setting, which included children with a variety of disabilities as well as children who were considered to be typically developing. "Jay," the subject of this study, was a 3-year-old boy who, at 2 years of age, had been diagnosed as having autism and a "global delay," meaning he had a delay in all areas of development. Participant observation research was used in this study. Play skills were taught in a structured teaching method, which was modeled after Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children, otherwise known as division TEACCH. Researchers sought answers to questions such as, "If play strategies are taught (such as how to play with age-appropriate toys), what would be the effect on social interaction of the autistic child with typically developing peers?" Observations were conducted during structured teaching, free choice play time, and group activities. At the end of the nine-week period, the data were analyzed by looking at the patterns and categories that emerged. In assessing the results of teaching play strategies in an integrated preschool setting, significant changes were observed in how Jay engaged in social play with adults and peers.

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For years, debate has raged over the best methodology to use in educating children with autism. A wide body of research advocates developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) as the best guide for teaching children in early childhood (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Considerable research also advocates formalized, structured teaching for children with autism (Lovaas & Smith, 1988; Schopler, 1996). This study will assess the effectiveness of merging elements from both philosophies to address the educational needs of children with autism.

Each child with autism may exhibit a wide variety of characteristics, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) (American Psychological Association, 1994), along a spectrum of severity and involvement. Professionals need to be prepared to use a variety of strategies best suited for each individual child, taking into consideration his or her personal strengths and challenges. When considering Piaget's theory of children's typical development through play (Shaffer, 1996) and an understanding of the reciprocal interplay between environment and the child (Vygotsky, 1978), combined with the knowledge that children with autism tend to be Gestalt-style learners (Cohen & Volkmar, 1997; Hodgdon, 1999; Janzen, 1996), a more viable method of teaching this population may be to teach play strategies in a visually embedded and integrated environment, using tenets of DAP, rather than using either the structured teaching model or DAP alone.

Review of Relevant Literature

Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults can exhibit any combination of the behaviors in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.

Some affected children may exhibit delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions. The child may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Communication often is described as egocentric, as if the autistic child is "talking at" the listener rather than with him or her.

Children with autism process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism also may exhibit some of the following traits:

* Insistence on sameness; resistance to change

* Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words

* Repeats words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language

* Laughs, cries, shows distress for reasons not apparent to others

* Prefers to be alone; aloof manner

* Tantrums

* Difficulty in mixing with others

* May not want to cuddle or be cuddled

* Little or no eye contact

* Unresponsive to conventional teaching methods

* Sustained odd play

* Spins objects

* Inappropriate attachments to objects

* Apparent oversensitivity or undersensitivity to pain

* No real fears of danger

* Noticeable physical overactivity or extreme underactivity

* Uneven gross/fine motor skills

* Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests in normal range. …