In 2014, OAR awarded two research scientists, Nicole Matthews, Ph.D., and Christopher Smith, Ph.D., both from the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, a two-year $30,000 grant for their study comparing the effectiveness of a peer-mediated social skills intervention to a traditional one. The intervention they used was the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), an intervention targeting social skills and friendship quality in adolescents with higher functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The goals of the study, “Inclusion of Typical Peers in a Social Skills Intervention for Adolescents with ASD: A Longitudinal Examination of the Generalizability of Acquired Skills to Real-World Settings,” were to:
- Compare change in social skills knowledge, social functioning, get-togethers, and well-being between ASD study groups
- Explore change in those variables, as well as stigma related to ASD and autism knowledge in neurotypical peer mentors
- Compare classroom social network centrality among ASD study groups.
The research team recruited 34 teens with ASD to participate in the study, dividing them into three groups:
- Peer-mediated PEERS
- Traditional PEERS
- Delayed-treatment control group
They also collected social network data in a total of 25 schools in the Phoenix, Ariz., metropolitan area, including 16 public high schools, three private schools, and six charter schools.
This study is the first to examine whether a peer-mediated social skills intervention for ASD is more effective than non-peer-mediated interventions. The researchers found initial evidence that peer-mediated interventions are slightly more beneficial. They also noted that their study is the first, as far as they know, to examine the PEERS curriculum when implemented in a community-based setting by service providers without doctoral degrees and/or academic affiliations. They found that, compared to the control group, participants in both PEERS groups improved, suggesting that the intervention is effective when implemented in a community-based setting.
These are some of the significant findings from the study:
- Participants with ASD in the traditional PEERS and peer-mediated PEERS groups demonstrated significantly greater improvements in social skills knowledge and loneliness compared to the control group.
- Only the peer-mediated PEERS group demonstrated significantly greater improvements in parent-reported social skills compared to the control group.
- The traditional PEERS group demonstrated significant gains in hosted get-togethers compared to the control group. At follow-up, however, there was no difference in the total number of hosted get-togethers between traditional PEERS and peer-mediated PEERS groups.
- The peer-mediated PEERS group demonstrated significant reductions in problem behaviors relative to the control group at the four-month follow-up that were not significant at the initial follow-up.
- The peer mentors demonstrated significant or marginal increases in social skills knowledge, parent-reported get-togethers, and autism knowledge, as well as a marginal decrease in adolescent-reported loneliness.
These findings indicate that there are modest benefits to a peer-mediated PEERS curriculum for adolescents with ASD and peer mentors.
The researchers have not yet released the findings from their analysis of the follow up done one year after the study. Preliminary findings indicate that gains in social skills knowledge and social skills, and reductions in problem behaviors were maintained. In fact, both treatment groups showed small improvements (although not statistically significant) compared to the four-month follow-up.
For young people with autism and their parents, the most relevant findings from this research were:
- Practicing social skills with neurotypical peer mentors provided a modest improvement in outcomes.
- Participating in the PEERS curriculum resulted in improved social skills knowledge, social skills, and/or reduced loneliness among adolescents with ASD.
The researchers also noted that many participants in the study were socially isolated in their general education classrooms at school despite having participated in an evidence-based social skills intervention. This suggests the need for continued practice of social skills and discussions with teachers about strategies that may increase socialization with peers in the classroom.