Play is widely recognised as an important feature in the education and overall development of a child (Kossyvaki and Papoudi, 2016) whereby social and cognitive skills such as problem solving, turn-taking, sharing and cooperating with others can develop (Lindsey, 2014). During play social language is supported and self-esteem, emotional development (Goleniowska, 2014) and friendships can be constructed. How we define play is open to interpretation as it is a complex and ambiguous concept (Eberle, 2014) which encompasses a range of human experiences.
Children with disabilities and those with autism often engage in restrictive play activities when compared to their typically developing peers (Wolfberg, Bottema-Beutel, and De Witt 2012). This is due to the nature of autism, a lifelong disability characterised with difficulties in communication, social interaction and by the presence of restrictive interests and behaviours (Duffy and Healy, 2011; APA, 2013). In addition, engaging in play may be hindered for those with autism as many exhibit difficulties in sensory processing (Case-Smith, Weaver and Fristad, 2015) and in symbolic thinking (Wing and Gould 1979), which is evident from early infancy (Charman, Swettenham, Baron Cohen, Cox, Baird and Drew 1997).
As defined by Wolfberg (1999), play involves engaging in voluntary and inherently motivated activities which are linked with recreational pleasure and enjoyment. This interpretation of play may therefore include leisure activities experienced by adolescents.
Adolescents with autism, and more specifically adolescent girls with autism, are considered vulnerable to increased social demands and the complexities of social interaction (Jamison and Schuttler, 2015). This may be due to male adolescent relationships being largely based on ‘doing’ whereas female adolescent relationships involve more conversing (Nicholas, Moraveik and Tetenbaum 2009). Within school, older children with autism who are cognitively able experience significant social challenges, displaying limited social encounters with peers (Dean, Kasari, Shih, Frankel, Whitney, Landa et al 2014). Challenges are associated with difficulties recognising subtle social cues and emotions of others i.e. deficits in Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith, 1985), an incapability to take another’s viewpoint, leading to naive reactions and hypersensitivity in social situations.
Combining a range of play and leisure intervention strategies to support the development of social communication skills are important for adolescents with autism across their lifespan.
This article describes a transdisciplinary approach with three adolescent girls with autism who attend mainstream school settings. The approach involved blending key psychosocial interventions through the introduction of ‘play’ activities to develop and support essential communication and social skills.
A multiple case study design was employed with six months follow up.
Informed consent to report and publish information was sought in accordance with Middletown Centre for Autism (MCA) research procedures from all adolescents, caregivers and professionals at school.
Three females aged thirteen to seventeen years (Ashley, Amanda and Noleen) were referred to Middletown Centre for Autism (MCA). To protect the identity of participants and to ensure confidentiality and anonymity pseudonym’s have been applied.
Ashley is a thirteen-year-old girl who was referred to MCA due to selective mutism. She did not engage with teachers or peers, refusing to complete or participate in class tasks. Ashley could be articulate and had an extensive knowledge of a range of topics, however, her expressive communication was affected by her anxiety. Ashley experienced difficulties with another student and in the absence of adaptive skills to cope, withdrew at home and school. Her interests were restricted to books, animals and art and she struggled to participate in less preferred activities.
Amanda is a fifteen-year-old girl with autism, reactive attachment disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She was referred to MCA due to elevated levels of anxiety related to transitioning to another school and a family bereavement. Continuous behavioural difficulties at home and community settings, combined with a deterioration in communicative abilities, when stressed and anxious, led to verbal processing difficulties within school. Amanda had a strong rigidity of thought, low self-esteem and experienced sensory processing difficulties. Amanda enjoyed communicating and wished to improve her peer relationships as interactions often resulted in negative peer reactions. Amanda had an interest in books and films but played with childhood toys and games. Gross motor difficulties proved challenging when participating in physical activities.
Noleen is a seventeen-year-old girl who was not accessing the curriculum appropriately. She was creative and interested in art. Noleen had extensive vocabulary with articulate verbal skills, however this deteriorated when she was upset. Noleen engaged in little spontaneous conversation with peers experiencing heightened anxiety in social situations and only engaging in relaxed conversation at home. Noleen rarely made eye contact and spoke in a low tone. She attended few family social outings except church. Noleen was aware of her autism diagnosis and its impact on her social and learning potential, expressing that difficulties included concentrating at school and being self-critical of her abilities especially her art. Noleen neglected areas of personal care and found it difficult to cope with unexpected change in the classroom triggering behaviours which challenge.
All of the adolescents referred required social skills support using ‘play’ based activities to help improve their social communication skills with school peers.
Transdisciplinary Intervention Programme
The transdisciplinary model involves any member of the Learning Support team within MCA acting as a lead Coordinator. The Coordinator capitalises on the experience of a team of professionals comprising teachers, speech and language therapists, autism intervention officers and occupational therapists. This model allows for skills to be transferred between team members, extending traditional roles and working in a coordinated way with one another, across three school terms, with each adolescent, their caregivers and other educational and health professionals. During an initial observation period of ten to twelve weeks, the Coordinator in conjunction with other transdisciplinary team members, assesses and addresses identified needs, strengths and challenges across home, school and community environments. A Learning Support Plan is subsequently established, outlining the development of a holistic intervention supporting the adolescent, their family and educational and health professionals working in the school setting
(See Tables 1 to 3).
Table 1: Examples of leisure strategies employed to develop social communication skills with Ashley.
Table 2: Examples of some leisure strategies employed to develop social communication skills with Amanda
For example, Amanda would repeatedly text a friend several times if she had not heard back from them.
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Table 3: Examples of some strategies and supports used to develop social communication skills with Noleen
Strategies and Resources employed
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The transdisciplinary model commences with a period of formal and informal assessment with the individual with autism, caregivers and professionals working with the young person within the school and community. In collaboration with caregivers and teachers, the Coordinator creates an individualised child centred set of goals and a tailored intervention programme to facilitate achievement of each goal.
Once intervention commences the Coordinator liaises regularly with all relevant parties, across settings reviewing and monitoring progress.
Six months following intervention, semi-structured interviews are conducted with caregivers and where possible the young person with autism. This allows participants to express their views on intervention effectiveness and how the process has affected their home and school environments. Education and health professionals involved in the intervention process are also invited to complete a self-report questionnaire evaluating intervention effectiveness, strategies, support and advice employed by MCA.
School staff reported that Ashley now speaks freely to her Classroom Assistant and can verbalise if she needs to leave the class when feeling anxious and explains why she is stressed or anxious. School staff report that Ashley is more interactive with her peers, has cooperatively worked with a peer on a project, speaking throughout. She also speaks aloud to almost all her teachers and recorded a full presentation for her English Teacher on an iPad. Ashley continues to require support, guidance and reinforcement to increase her fluency when speaking to teachers however progress has been made.
During one to one intervention sessions Amanda demonstrated an elevated level of insight into the impact her behaviour had on the reactions of her peers. Areas such as repeatedly saying “hello” to peers, asking irrelevant questions in class, and feeling worried that peers were looking at her were discussed. Using visual supports such as comic strips and social stories and engaging in exercise classes Amanda has been supported to regulate her emotions and these have helped her with her social communication difficulties. Although Amanda continues to have difficulties with impulse control and still finds social interaction anxiety provoking, she benefits from having time to discuss social interactions with adults.
Amanda’s peers completed a peer awareness session on autism. Both Amanda and school staff report an increase in peer supportiveness because of the awareness sessions.
The MCA Coordinator reported that Noleen attended and participated fully in all social group skills activities. Noleen also joined her peers on a trip to a local community centre and on walks to the local shop, her first time to have been on a school trip.
Within the home environment, the Coordinator supported Noleen in candle and jewelry making with a sibling. Both the Coordinator and her parents reported that Noleen was very relaxed and open to conversation and social interaction. School staff also reiterated this openness to communicate.
Six Month Follow-up
Ashley’s Classroom Assistant reported that interaction with peers has improved. Using visuals makes things definite for her at school and she is more aware of her emotions.
Ashley’s mother reported improvements in her daughter’s social communication skills, indicating that she has started to speak and learn more. This she felt was attributed to her emotional understanding which resulted in her being calmer at home and at school. Ashley’s’ mother stated that:
“…before Ashely was alone there was no enjoyment and no engagement. She is more helpful and enjoys everything much more. She is more social now whereas before she just went to her room. She now helps me with cooking and cleaning, my daughter is back and is happier”.
Amanda's teacher reported that although Amanda still struggles to form friendships her social skills have improved, as she has a greater understanding of her autism and her emotions. The awareness workshops have given her peers a greater understanding of how Amanda’s autism impacts on her behaviours and difficulties in forming relationships. Some of her peers now actively attempt to include her within the class group.
Noleen’s parents reported that she is equipped with new coping skills. The entire family and the school have benefited having learned helpful guidelines for and about Noleen. Building a trusting relationship with the Coordinator helped and as a result her interests have extended, to eating out and shopping. Parents also reported moderate improvements in Noleen’s social skills such as her ability to converse and approach others.
Lacking social and communication “know how” amongst adolescents with autism can result in heightened anxiety within school and home environments. This can result in increased cognitive and practical impairments. The evidence reported in this research indicates that adopting a range of play and leisure strategies delivered via a transdisciplinary approach centering on the strengths, interests and needs of each young person can support and improve this area of deficit.
Including and educating peers also positively helps raise awareness and knowledge of autism whilst offering opportunities to forge peer relationships which may otherwise prove difficult for the young person with autism.
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Sheila Cross is a Certified Researcher and has almost twenty years in the field of research of which eight years has been spent in autism. Sheila is employed as Research Projects Manager at Middletown Centre for Autism and is currently completing her Masters degree in Autism at the University of Strathclyde. Her research interests include inclusive education and the diagnosis and experience of girls with autism in education.