This study is an investigation of whether social skills training provided by paraprofessionals to elementary grade children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in both partially and fully included classrooms can result in perceived gains in social skills as measured by teacher ratings. Results showed that several areas of social responsiveness noticeably improved as a result of the intervention in the short run; however, sustained improvement was difficult to detect. This study extends the research on the development of social skills among children with ASD by examining perceptions of social responsiveness rather than noting how often the children engaged in prosocial behaviors. It further extends the research by studying the efficacy of using trained paraprofessionals to deliver the intervention inconspicuously in the child's general education classroom.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; social skills interventions; paraprofessionals
According to the U.S. Department of Education (2002), the number of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) receiving educational services in special education increased over 1300%, from 5,415 to 78,749 children during the 1990's. This number can only continue to rise as current estimates put the prevalence of autism at 1 in 150 children (Autism Speaks). At the same time as the number of children with autism requiring services in our schools is increasing, calls for evidence-based practices for all children have strengthened (Williams, Johnson, & Sukhodolsky, 2005). The use of evidence-based practices, those having an empirical basis attesting to their validity and efficacy, is one approach at accountability.
The needs of children with ASD are indeed varied and complex, however, the lack of social skills may be among the most pressing of problems. There are many issues surrounding social skills interventions, including but not limited to who should deliver the intervention (a trained peer or a trained adult), where the intervention should take place (e.g., in the school, in the clinic, or in a pull-out program within the school), and what the intervention should be (e.g., social scripts, modeling, visual cueing, discrete trials). While studies using trained peers show promising results, the question of acceptance of children with ASD by their peers remains relevant and problematic. Farmer, Pearl and, VanAcker (1996) noted that students with disabilities are more likely to have a rejected status and less likely to have a popular status in the classroom and school. The concept of peer rejection is derived from peer nominations and peer ratings that measure how well students are liked by classmates in general, and is based heavily on the degree of a child's social skills (Farmer, Pearl, & VanAcker). Behaviors such as the stereotyped behaviors often common in ASD are not seen as socially acceptable and frequently reduce opportunities for social interaction (Lee, Odom, & Loftin, 2007). Chamberlain, Kasari, and Rotherman-Fuller (2007) found that "the average level of social network centrality was lower for children with autism than for their peers; they were less well accepted and they had fewer reciprocal friendships" (p. 239). Swaim and Morgan (2001) have shown that even with information explaining autism, attitudes of typically developing children toward children with autism do not change. The work of Lee, Yoo, and Bak (2003) shows that children with typical abilities tend to act as helpers, caregivers, and tutors of children with disabilities rather than becoming friends, as evidenced by reciprocal social interactions. Though this is not the ideal outcome of peer tutoring, it allows for a give and take relationship and may afford the child with ASD some opportunity to move from weak social skills to more appropriate social skills. Contact with typically developing peers is thought to be a critical piece in supporting children with ASD, but it cannot be the only piece representing successful socialization (Ochs, Kremer-Sadlik, Solomon, & Gainer Sirota, 2001). …