Paras to Peers: facilitating social Interactions for school-aged children with autism spectrum disorder
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Social participation is an important area of occupation and is central to an individual’s identity and sense of competence (AOTA, 2014). Social participation includes engagement in social interactions and formation of friendships, both of which support social interdependence and wellbeing. Friendships are a significant social experience for children as they create a valuable context to learn and practice skills essential to children’s psychosocial development (Guralnick, Neville, Hammond, & Connor, 2007). Forming friendships can be difficult for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to a variety of reasons. Social-related challenges associated with ASD place the child at risk for decreased social interactions (Bauminger & Shulman, 2003; Humphrey & Lewis, 2008). The movement towards including children with disabilities in general education classrooms has resulted in an overreliance on one-to-one paraprofessionals to provide support to these students. Paraprofessionals are offered little prerequisite training and ongoing support, and may unintentionally hinder students’ social participation by providing too much assistance or causing students to become overly dependent (Broer, Doyle, & Giangreco, 2005; Carter & Hughes, 2006; Giangreco, Edelman, & Broer, 2003; Patterson, 2006). Decreased social participation during childhood places individuals at greater risk for adjustment challenges later in life (Copeland et al., 2004; Guralnick et al., 2007; Kasari, Locke, Gulsrud, & Rotheram-Fuller, 2011). Paras to Peers is an occupational-therapist-led training program for paraprofessionals providing one-to-one support to students with ASD. This six-week, multi-modal program utilizes both evidence-based learning theories and paraprofessional instructional techniques to train paraprofessionals, including modeling, performance feedback, and follow-up support. The program incorporates both group and individualized training sessions to teach paraprofessionals social facilitation strategies to promote social participation for students with ASD. Data regarding students with ASD’s social interactions and paraprofessionals’ use of social facilitation strategies will be gathered via trained observers as well as through a paraprofessional survey. Paras to Peers is an innovative method for promoting social participation for students with ASD as well as improving interdisciplinary collaboration between occupational therapists and educational staff in the school setting.