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Peer Social Skills and Social Relationships: Measuring Change in Real World School Settings

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 14:30
Auditorium (Kursaal Centre)
C. Kasari1, M. Kretzmann2 and M. Dean3, (1)University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (2)Psychiatry, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (3)University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Background: Social impairment may be the most complex and impenetrable core challenge facing children with autism.  Not surprisingly the field has witnessed a significant increase in the number of intervention studies addressing social functioning.  Most studies demonstrate improved outcomes based on children’s tested social knowledge, and parental reported social skills.  However, social functioning is rarely tested in environments (e.g., schools) that challenge the durability and depth of these intervention effects.  Outcome measures remain limited with an over-reliance on potentially biased informants (i.e., involved in the intervention or unblinded).   There is a critical need to develop reliable, objective measures of social functioning that can be measured in real world environments, and that measure changes that can be interpreted as meaningful and sustainable. 

Objectives: To describe the application of social network methodology and social interaction observational measures collected in school environments.  To determine if change measured over time provides an index of meaningful (generalizable, stable) change in child social functioning.

Methods: We have applied social network methods to children in school settings using an online data collection system that yields information on peer social connections, friendship reciprocity, and social status within the classroom social structures (the Friendship Survey).  Peer social interactions during unstructured times during the school day (lunch, recess, transitions) have been assessed with live coding procedures yielding information on peer engagement, initiations and responses (Playground Observation of Peer Engagement-POPE).  Data from nearly two hundred school- aged children with ASD (Kindergarten through fifth grade) have been assessed using these measures across multiple time points during the school year.    

Results: We have found significant changes in social network status of children as a result of social skills interventions carried out at school in as little as 12 sessions, 6-weeks (Kasari et al, 2012; AIR-B in process).  Data illustrating change in social network salience, friendship nominations and reciprocity will be presented for type of intervention that children receive as well as by gender and age/grade, and the stability of changes over time.  POPEs coded during unstructured periods at school are also sensitive to change, and depend on the type of intervention applied (where intervention takes place, and who is delivering the intervention). The interconnectedness of these data will be presented to illustrate important considerations in their application to school settings, and for interpretation of ‘real’ social change.

Conclusions: Social network measures are easy to administer, and to code using online computerized programming.  These measures are sensitive to change over short periods of time, and additionally can identify specific children who may be in need of interventions depending on their status within the classroom (e.g., isolated).  The application of social network methods, and the additional observational data from playground observations can yield important data regarding children’s real world social situations at school, the context in which children spend the most time every day.  Limitations in these methods include when network data and observations do not match, and the potential challenges in obtaining informed consent to carry out these measures in school contexts.

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