Program empowers parents of young children on autism spectrum to help their offspring thrive

New intervention provides social, emotional and behavioural skills training for parents as well as preschoolers

Parental support is vital to children on the autism spectrum; even more so when funding and programs for children with special needs are cut during times of austerity. Unfortunately, parents don’t always have the practical knowledge they need to provide this assistance. Now, a new program offered by the Werklund School of Education promises to teach parents and children the social, emotional and behavioural skills they need to thrive.

What makes the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Social Skills for Preschoolers (P4P) social intervention training different from other programs offering similar services is that it addresses the needs of both the child and the parent. 

“Children with autism spectrum disorder have substantial needs, the most prominent of which are social impairments that lead to reduced educational and vocational success, independence and mental health,” explains Dr. Adam McCrimmon, PhD’10registered psychologist and associate professor (pictured above). “They typically struggle to make and keep friends, so effective social intervention provided early in life is critical, and parents are integral to the process. We want parents to be empowered to support their child rather than be dependent upon us or others to do so. They accomplish this by learning skills to help their child continue to develop social abilities after our program is completed.”

Social difficulties that emerge early in a child’s life set the stage for more profound difficulties later on, so social intervention at a young age is essential.

The 16-week P4P program is designed specifically for children aged four to six, so such foundational social skills as meeting and greeting other children, asking other children to play, and sharing and taking turns are targeted.

For the first half of each 90-minute session, parents work with McCrimmon’s team while the children participate in interactive play-based teaching games with McCrimmon and other facilitators. Parents learn the skills their children are working on and receive instruction on how to continue developing these proficiencies after the course ends. The second half of each session allows parents to put this new knowledge into practice through mock play dates with their children, while receiving guidance and feedback from the instructors.

“As a result, parents get hands-on experience with the strategies to support their child’s social development. Our hope is that families will experience less need for supports and programs later in their children’s lives.”

Program similar to ones for older kids

The P4P program was devised by the same team at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles that created similar programs for teenagers and young adults. The researchers examined the social competencies that enabled other children to successfully build friendships and then developed processes to teach those same skills to children with autism.  

That program has been wildly successful. Our findings have shown that teens completing the program have experienced substantial gains in social skills, the desire to interact with others and flexibility in behaviour. Many teens and their parents have also talked to us about the profound positive experience they had during the program and the life-changing improvements experienced by the end of the program, and beyond,” says McCrimmon.

McCrimmon is recruiting children aged four to six with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, who speak consistently in four or more word phrases and who are able to function in a group environment without an aide. Parents have the option of participating in a related research project that will evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Complete details can be found on the Autism Spectrum Education, Research, and Training group website.