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Education research looks at autistic toddlers’ social turn-taking

Published on April 25, 2023

Education research looks at autistic toddlers’ social turn-taking

Education researchers
Researchers Kwangwon Lee, education professor, and Fatima Godina ’22 (psychology) and Delaney Pike ’23 (early childhood education and psychology).

A new method for parents of autistic toddlers to encourage their children to take turns in social situations is the focus of an Eastern Connecticut State University research team in the Center for Early Childhood Education. Their study was published online on March 30 in the Early Childhood Education Journal.

Learning to take turns in social exchanges is difficult for some autistic children, noted education Professor Kwangwon Lee, who directed the study. Lee’s team observed 22 Zoom recordings made by a parent playing with her autistic toddler. In separate weekly Zoom sessions, the researchers guided the parent through concepts concerning how to promote social turn-taking.

Parent-mediated learning is relatively new in the field of interventions for autistic children, Lee said. His approach built on earlier research done by Hanna Schertz, professor at Indiana University’s School of Education.

“Our study is one of the first to replicate and adapt her approach to a new telehealth model, which has never been done before,” he said. “We adapted Dr. Schertz’s work in our study by focusing solely on social turn-taking to better understand how autistic children build a foundation for joint attention through social turn-taking."

The Eastern researchers found that a focused approach may support some autistic children in improving their social communication and it may also support the parent-child relationship. The parent involved in the study reported that prior to the guided play sessions, her 28-month-old autistic son, called Leo in the study, had difficulty speaking and making eye contact, and she felt it was difficult to socially connect with him. After the 12-week study, she reported that he made more eye contact and was initiating and responding to social interactions more frequently.

The activities recorded on Zoom included the parent and child playing with rubber ducks in a water pail, using a bubble machine, and playing with a pinwheel and a pegboard. The researchers observed the exchanges between them and coded the results. The mother also kept a weekly logbook of notes.

In addition, student researchers recorded weekly sessions between the parent and a research interventionist, in which the parent received instructions on concepts that would guide her in playing with her son.

“Parent-mediated learning is parent-implemented intervention,” Lee said. “Parents are not told what to do by an interventionist, and there is no prescriptive, step-by-step strategy for them to follow. Instead, parents are conceptually guided in intervention principles, which they then translated into planned play sessions and daily routines with their children."

The student researchers, Fatima Godina ’22 and Delaney Pike ’23, were involved in recruitment of the parent and child, data collection, analysis and reporting. Godina now works at a research clinic in South Caroline and Pike plans to study special education in graduate school.

Lee, who has studied turn-taking in autistic children for many years, said that research into early intervention for autistic children is changing as we gain more understanding of autism. “Developmental intervention approaches, such as parent-mediated learning, are gaining popularity,” he said, although they are relatively new compared with other approaches such as behavioral-based interventions.

The results of the study should be interpreted with caution, Lee said, because only one parent-child pair was involved and Leo was receiving other therapy at the time. However, it provides a case study into how an innovative practice might be used more broadly, he added.

The study, “A social turn-taking, parent-mediated learning intervention for a young child with autism: Findings of a pilot telehealth study,” is available online.

Written by Lucinda Weiss