Integrated Play Groups promote social development in children with autism
Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) face pervasive challenges in symbolic and social play development. The Integrated Play Groups (IPG) model provides intensive guidance for children with ASD to participate with typical peers in mutually engaging experiences in natural settings.
“Integrated Play Groups,” or IPGs, originated by Dr. Pamela Wolfberg, PhD, professor of special education in the area of Autism Spectrum Studies at San Francisco State University over several years, are effective in teaching children with autism the skills they need to interact with their peers and engage in symbolic play such as pretending. In IPGs, adults help children with autism and their typically developing peers engage in playful activities of mutual interest, but do not direct the play themselves. That sets them apart from more traditional interventions, according to Wolfberg, a professor of special education and communicative disorders.
According to Dr. Wolfberg “Children learn much better how to play through interactions with peers than they do from adults, because adults are not like children anymore,” she said. “We can definitely have wonderful interactions with kids through play, and we should. But this is qualitatively different.”
For this new study Dr. Wolfberg and colleagues examined the effects of a 12-week IPG intervention on the symbolic and social play of 48 children with ASD. The researchers studied the children during free-play activities, in which they did not know the other children, twice before and once after those same children participated in an Integrated Play Groups program with familiar peers.
The findings revealed significant gains in symbolic and social play that generalized to unsupported play with unfamiliar peers. After the IPG intervention the children’s ability to interact with kids they did not know and to engage in pretend play had risen dramatically, indicating the IPGs were successful in providing them with transferable social and symbolic play skills.
Children with autism, according to Dr. Wolfberg, tend to have a “very restrictive play repertoire,” in which they may have unusual interests and repeat the same activity, most often by themselves. The goal of Integrated Play Groups is to move children from engaging in lower levels of play, such as simply banging something, to engaging in more symbolic play that involves reciprocal interaction with peers.
“The earthquake-rescue theme is the most popular in San Francisco, and we had a little boy just like that, who had an affinity to bang things.” “So the kids came up with this idea of building cardboard blocks and having an earthquake, and he was the construction worker. He was able to participate in other kids’ interest, build something more elaborate and have a whole fantasy about it, “said Dr. Wolfberg.
The success of IPGs is an opportunity for parents, educators and therapists seeking to help children with autism in socializing with their peers. In addition, the IPG model also teaches typically developing children about autism and lets them learn how to form friendships with kids who might play, communicate or relate differently.
“This is what families want for their kids,” added Wolfberg. “This flips around the idea that kids with autism are incapable of socializing or incapable of pretending. They have the same innate drive to participate with peers and to engage in playful experiences, but what has been happening is we have not been able to tap into their potential.
The researchers write “Consistent with prior studies, the outcomes provide robust and compelling evidence that further validate the efficacy of the IPG model.”
Future research will involve collaboration with Dr. Betty Yu, assistant professor special education & communicative disorders and graduate students to look more closely at how Integrated Play Groups can help children with autism better communicate with their typically developing peers, another challenge they face. Wolfberg also has been adapting the IPG model to be used in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, where she traveled this fall.
IPG Model Benefits
The IPG model has been found to be effective in supporting a wide range of children representing diverse ages, abilities, socio-economic groups, languages and cultures. Novice players have demonstrated generalizable gains in the development of social interaction, communication, language, representational play and related symbolic activity (writing and drawing). Expert players have benefited by showing greater self-esteem, awareness, empathy and acceptance of individual differences. Both novice and expert players have formed mutual friendships while having fun together.
Integrated Play Groups: Promoting Symbolic Play and Social Engagement with Typical Peers in Children with ASD Across Settings. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s10803-014-2245-0
SF State News