A potential alternative mentoring intervention for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Karoff, M., Tucker, A. R., Alvarez, T., & Kovacs, P. (2017). Infusing a peer-to-peer support program with Adventure Therapy for adolescent students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Experiential Education, 40, 394-408. doi:10.1177/1053825917727551

Summarized by Renée Klein Schaarsberg

Notes of Interest: This article provides preliminary support for a way to increase social competence and decreasing isolation and maladaptive social behaviors in students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The intervention being studied here addresses the current research on the importance of peer mentor involvement, and it seems to meet the unique needs of youth with ASD. In this way, the study provides a perspective for new possible ways to respond to the needs of ASD youth.

Introduction (reprinted from the Abstract):

Key findings from the literature on treatment interventions with youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) indicate that the most successful approaches allow frequent opportunities for uncontrived social interactions and are customizable to the needs of individuals and the group.  Adventure therapy (AT) meets these criteria while providing opportunities for processing here-and-now behaviors in relation to life beyond school.

The purpose of this article is to present one model of a peer-mediated adventure therapy program with high school students with ASD. A case example is presented to highlight one student’s experience in the program over 3 years.  The Social Skills Improvement System was administered on an annual basis for this student, and scores were analyzed to assess progress.

Preliminary data for one student over 3 years indicate an overall increase in social skills and overall decrease in problem behaviors.  The case example illuminates the rationale for using adventure therapy with youth ASD due to opportunities for uncontrived interaction, a group-driven process, and emphasis on the here-and-now.

While the small evaluation and case example provided preliminary support for utilizing adventure in peer-mediated interventions with youth with ASD, further research is needed for more in-depth program evaluation and understanding.

Implications (reprinted from the Conclusion):

Key findings from the literature on group treatment interventions with ASD youth indicate that the most successful approaches allow frequent opportunities for uncontrived, authentic interaction with non-ASD peers, and are flexible and customizable to the needs of the group and individuals within it.

We feel that AT, by its very nature, meets these criteria while providing youth with the opportunity to reflect on and cognitively process here-and-now behaviors, emotions, and interactions with peers in relation to these elements as they manifest in their lives beyond the school environment. Our case example and small evaluation provide preliminary anecdotal support for this belief; however, there is a great need for evaluation of programs such as the one outlined here to gain a deeper understanding of the AT process and treatment outcomes for ASD youth.

Additional research is also needed to understand the impact of such peer-mediated interventions on the non-ASD peer participants.  The facilitators of the Frasier High School program have noted that a shift in culture has occurred at the school leading to what feels like an increased awareness of ASD and other cognitive disabilities as well as an increased sense of acceptance for ASD youth.  This makes sense, given that research has indicated that when children and youth without disabilities observe competence in their peers with disabilities, they are more likely to perceive children and youth with disabilities as capable and belonging in the social environment.

In addition, some teachers have been observed incorporating adventure activities into their normal teaching modalities, suggesting another change within the school climate.  Considering the rise in ASD and the need for effective treatments, we hope that with more research and a better understanding of AT with ASD youth, school professionals might consider AT as a feasible alternative intervention for youth with ASD.

To access the original research article, click here.