HELPING YOUTH WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER DEVELOP SOCIAL COMPETENCE IN COMMUNITY-BASED SETTINGS
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The purpose of the current dissertation is to identify the features of effective interventions by exploring the experiences of youth with ASD who participate in such interventions, through two intervention studies (Studies 1 and 2) and one interview study (Study 3). Studies 1 and 2 were designed to support the development of social competence of youth with ASD through Structured Play with LEGO TM (Study 1, 12 youths with ASD, ages 7–12) and Minecraft TM (Study 2, 4 youths with ASD, ages 11–13). Over the course of the sessions, the play of the youth developed from parallel play (children playing alone, without interacting) to co-operative play (playing together with shared objectives). The results of Study 2 showed that rates of initiations and levels of engagement increased from the first session to the final session. In Study 3, 12 youths with ASD (ages 10–14) and at least one of their parents were interviewed to explore what children and their parents want from programs designed to improve social competence, which activities and practices were perceived to promote social competence by the participants, and which factors affected their decisions regarding these programs. The adolescents and parents looked for programs that supported social development and emotional wellbeing, but did not always have access to the programs they would have preferred, with factors such as cost and location reducing their options. Three overarching themes emerged through analysis of the three studies: (a) interests of the youth; (b) structure, both through interactions and instruction; and (c) naturalistic settings. Adolescents generally engage more willingly in interventions that incorporate their interests, such as play with Minecraft TM in Study 2. Additionally, Structured Play and structured instruction were crucial components of providing safe and supportive contexts for the development of social competence. Finally, skills learned in naturalistic settings tend to be applied more successfully in everyday situations. The themes are analysed through the lens of Vygotsky’s (1978) perspectives on learning, play, and development. Implications of the results for practitioners and researchers are discussed.