Avery is a seven-year old girl, who moved into our neighborhood more than a year ago. As with most children with autism, who face challenges in social play, Avery was isolated or on the fringes of peer play groups. Enter PAW Pals. “PAW Pals” (PAW=Princess Anne Way, the street where we live) is an integrated play group that focuses on teaching children strategies to communicate with and engage Avery. The PAW Pals program reduces the many challenges seen in school or center-based social skills groups, where training is provided outside of natural contexts with very little carry over. By teaching skills in the “neighborhood setting” with typically developing peers, everyone is learning positive social behavior together. The children’s use of these skills is both facilitated and rewarded during motivating play.
PAW Pals was conducted intensively for the first summer. We met twice a week for 2.5 hours. This helped to establish a routine and teach the specific “play clues” or social skills designed to help the peers be successful when engaging Avery in play. Now that all of the players are familiar with the play clue strategies and have demonstrated success generalizing their use outside of the facilitated play, we meet less frequently as a formal group. The video portrays the typical group format, which consists of four peers (ages 4-8, including Avery’s older brother), Avery, and an adult facilitator. The session begins with a group greeting, followed by direct instruction on the specific play clues. The play clues that have been developed for this group include:
(1) getting your friend’s attention
(2) inviting your friends to play
(3) showing to your friends
(5) asking for turns
(6) giving a play idea
(7) giving a compliment
The play clues are designed to help Avery successfully interact with her peers. For instance, rather than just saying, “do you want to play?” or “come play with me”, we pair this request with a gesture and hold hands to ensure a more positive response from Avery. We have found the more the kids are successful in getting Avery to respond, the more frequently they initiate interactions with her. Each play clue is introduced through the use of pictures and a short phrase, then modeled, practiced through role-play, and reinforced. This teaching sequence is important! It ensures that the boys and girls understand and can use the play clues independently in play. The responsibility of initiating and sustaining play is balanced among all of the players so that both Avery and her peers are required to use the play clues when interacting with one another.
After the direct instruction, the PAW Pal Café interactive play guide was read to prepare the group for play. The play guides (or play themes) were developed based on Avery’s interests (e.g., music-“PAW Pal Music Parade”, water-“PAW Pal Beach”, cooking-“PAW Pal Café”, etc.). This is an essential step in the process, which maximizes Avery’s motivation to participate. The play guides are not scripts, but joint action routines that provide a sequence of motivating activities and specified roles. They provide some definition to the play, which helps to slow it down and make the play more concrete. This added support not only helps children with autism, but all of the players participate more fully. As shown in the video, the children all participated in the role of “chef” and then followed the sequence of making cookies. Next, they were assigned roles of either “eater” or “server” for the PAW Pal Café. The specific activities that were chosen and read from the play guide were then carried out. During play, the role of the adult facilitator is to ensure that the children are playing together by guiding their interactions and use of the play clues. The level of adult support is gradually reduced over time as the children demonstrate more independence and positive social behavior that results in successful play interactions.
With the support of a trained speech-language pathologist, special educator, or behavioral therapist in the role of adult facilitator, families can partner with a professional to create these groups in their own community and enhance their son or daughter’s social connections outside of the school or therapeutic environment.
Over the past year, we have found that Avery’s interest and comfort level in interacting with her PAW Pals has greatly increased. She will spontaneously respond to her peers’ invitations to play and will participate in both structured and unstructured play. She will even initiate interactions with her friends outside of PAW Pal sessions. Her peers have all learned the specific play clues and will use them independently to invite or encourage Avery to play with them. There is a sincere motivation by all children to be a “good PAW Pal player” and they have certainly established this shared group identity. Most importantly, all of the players have built connections amongst themselves and now bring a true sense of acceptance and appreciation of the unique gifts that we all have into every context of their lives. I believe learning this critical life lesson early will leave a lasting imprint on their future connections with others.
Kay Holman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, Towson University
Editor and Author of, “School Success for Kids Autism”