Child social networks

A new study shows how children with autism and other developmental delays can benefit from peer interactions in preschool
child social networks

Social interaction with peers plays a large role in children’s development. To understand the importance of peer interactions between preschoolers with and without developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, a group of researchers at the University of Miami used new technology to measure children’s vocalizations and interactions to see how social networks form within the classroom.

“When children are with their peers in preschool, these interactions give them a chance to hear language in real time and practice using language with their peers,” said Regina M. Fasano, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology and lead author on the new publication. “We wanted to know how those interactions might support children with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, who often have delays in language and social interaction skills.”

“Many children with autism attend inclusive preschool classrooms alongside children with other developmental delays and typically developing children without delays,” said Dr. Lynn Perry, an associate professor in psychology who collaborated with Fasano on the study. “The idea is that interacting with a variety of peers will support everybody’s development. But we don’t really know much about how those peer interactions actually play out, and whether they support children’s language development.”

To study how often children were interacting in a preschool environment, researchers outfitted them with special vests equipped with a lightweight audio recording device called a Language ENvironment Analysis, or LENA, and location tracking tags called Ubisense. Together, the devices help the researchers understand how much each child talks to each other child in their class.

“Using this new combination of technologies, we see how children form a social network in the classroom,” said Perry. “The day-to-day interactions children had with peers was a very strong indicator of how well they performed on an assessment at the end of year to measure their language development, both in terms of their ability to understand spoken language, their expressive ability to produce spoken language.”

Based on their findings observed from three separate groups of children (children with autism, children with developmental delays, and children without delays or disabilities), researchers found that both the group of children with autism and the group of children with developmental delays had some delays in their language development. Although the children with autism tended to engage in fewer vocal interactions with peers than the other groups, the team found that all three groups’ language development benefited from those peer interactions.

“In essence, peer interactions are important for all children, particularly those with autism,” said Fasano. “For children with autism spectrum disorder, their language skills can be delayed compared to other children, so promoting a positive and rich environment for language interaction to occur is necessary to help children develop their language skills over time. Here we found that peers can play a critical role in that process.”

Researchers hope to expand on this study by adding components related to the teacher’s role in communication and language interactions with children who have developmental delays.

“We know that teachers understand the importance of having children interact with each other as much as possible,” added Fasano. “Perhaps pairing children who have stronger language skills with those children who have delays in language could create a highly effective interaction that benefits children with developmental disabilities.”  

Along with Fasano and Perry, the team of UM researchers include Chaoming Song and Yi Zhang in the Department of Physics, Jue Wang in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies, and Laura Vitale and Daniel Messinger in the Department of Psychology.

The study, “A Granular Perspective on Inclusion: Objectively Measured Interactions of Preschoolers with and without Autism,” is published in the journal Autism Research.