Traditional approaches to social skills instruction often have an adult (teacher) as the primary instructor in the interaction. This type of interaction has been shown to not generalize well to other environments (Bellini, 2007). In the field of autism interventions there is a shift from adult-directed instruction to that of peer-mediated interventions. Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of these procedures (Rogers, 2000).
Peer Support interventions strive to teach students with autism in naturally occurring social settings and to have peers instructing each other. These peers can be either neuro-typical or have autism—it doesn’t matter. The important element in peer support is that the children are facilitating the interaction. They are passing items to their peers, looking at their peers’ faces and prompting their peers to do the same. Peer support encourages the participants to be the instructors—the adults in these programs only guide the interaction, to reinforce appropriate interactions and to create the opportunities in which children can engage with each other. Often times, the connecting link between students does not need to involve language to be enjoyed—sensory materials, stimulating games and activities, and music all are mediums which foster interaction between peers.
The use of multiple peers in various settings is important in order to improve generalization (Kamps, 1997; Kamps, 2002). Using same-aged as well as cross-aged peers also helps to increase generalization. Older peers often enjoy the mediation process and can have significant impact on student behavior. It is also important to note that social growth occurs in both peers regardless of their role in the interaction. New opportunities for learning continually present themselves as the interests of the students expand and develop.