Children on a playgroundFor children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), interacting with other children on the playground is not always easy. Although playing with peers is vital for learning the rules of social engagement, many children with ASD lack the motivation to initiate play or the understanding of how to do so. Researchers at Vanderbilt University conducted a study in which a child acting as a research assistant invited children with ASD to play. They found that the children with ASD had elevated stress levels due the the experience, but also that they exhibited similar play levels of play to their typically-developing peers when playing with children they had just met.

The researchers observed more than 30 peer interactions between children aged eight to 12. The children played on a real playground where their interactions were recorded using four remotely-operated cameras and several battery-operated microphones. Only three children were on the playground at a time; one neurotypical (NT) child who was a “confederate” of the researchers, an NT child who was not aware of the study, and a child with ASD. The confederate, outfitted with an in-ear microphone to receive directions, invited the other two children to play. The researchers observed the proceedings from a lab that overlooked the playground.

The children’s cortisol levels were also measured using saliva samples taken at home, before the study, and after the playground interactions.

The findings indicate that, although children with autism spectrum disorders engaged in less play overall, ASD and NT children play similarly when they are with children they have just met. Additionally, children with ASD exhibited increased cortisol levels after play; the children least motivated to play had the highest levels of cortisol.

“Although children with autism may experience increased stress in social interactions, it was encouraging to see that reciprocal socialization can be facilitated by peer solicitation. It all starts with a simple bid to play,” concluded lead author Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.

This research is published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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