For Parents

For Parents

Helping Preschoolers with ASD Interact with their Peers

Effects of combining a peer intervention and a speech device intervention to improve children with ASD’s communication


What do we know already?

There has been a lot of research about using Speech Generating Devices (or SGDs) in children with autism.  It has been found that teaching children with severe autism how to communicate with an SGD improves their use of gestures and vocalizations. It also increases both the number of words the child can understand and the number of words the child can produce.

Additionally, there has been research on teaching typically developing children how to interact with their peers who have autism.  These studies found improvement in overall communication, joint attention, and play skills when the child with autism and their peer learned how to interact with one another.  However, there is no previously research that combines the two interventions. The logical next question is what happens when you teach the child with autism and their typically developing peer to use an SGD together.


What did the current study look at?

Recently, a researcher from the University of Kansas partnered up with a preschool classroom in Kansas City. This classroom had typically developing children and children with developmental disabilities. They paired three children with severe autism with three children who were typically developing.  The children with autism were all nonverbal or minimally verbal, meaning they used less than 20 words. Over the course of three private sessions, the typically developing peers were taught how to use the SGD (the GoTalk 4+ in this experiment).  The peers were also taught skills related to being a good buddy, including getting their partner’s attention and waiting patiently for a response.  Then over the course of 10 weeks, intervention occurred as the children sat at a table together with an activity and the SGD.  An adult was available to prompt the children to interact with one another and the device if needed.


What did the study find?

Before the intervention, the pairs were not interacting with each other at all. After the peer was taught buddy skills and how to use the SGD, there were improvements in communication for all three pairs of participants. The typically developing child began communicating with the child with autism and vice versa. In one case, the child with autism even initiated communication more than their typically developing partner.  Communication between pairs was highest when they were doing a motivating activity, such as playing with cause-and-effect toys or eating a snack.

These results are very promising for future studies that can include more participants, different environments, and other software, as there are so many different SGDs and apps out there.


What does it mean?

This study shows the importance of making sure that children with autism and their peers have a way to communicate with one another even when one child is nonverbal.  It also serves as a reminder that sometimes typically developing children need to be taught how to be a good friend to their peers with developmental disabilities, like being patient while waiting for a response. If your child uses a form of alternative communication, try teaching a sibling or a peer how to use the device and see what happens!


Thiemann-Bourque, K.S., McGuff S., & Goldstein, H. (2017).  Training peer partners to use a Speech-Generating Device with classmates with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Exploring communication outcomes across preschool contexts.  Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60, 2648-2662. doi: 10.1044/2017_JSLHR-L-17-0049.