Peer-Mediated Interventions for Students with Autism

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you work with children who are on the autism spectrum, then you might be interested in using peer-mediated interventions to help them develop social and communication skills. This lesson discusses some effective intervention strategies.

Why Peer Mediation Works

For the last six years, Shannon has been working with students who have autism in a self-contained special education setting, or one where they learn separately from their typically-developing peers.

Though Shannon knows that her students benefit from intensive and separate instruction in many ways, she has recently grown more interested in finding ways to integrate her students with peers who do not have autism. Shannon attended a professional development workshop about peer-mediated interventions, or interventions in which students with autism work alongside typically-developing peers as they build their skills and capacities.

As Shannon has learned, peer mediation can be very successful in helping students with autism develop stronger communication skills. After all, when they work with peers, they are motivated to express themselves effectively. They can also learn from their peers in a collaborative situation.

Further, peer mediation can help students with autism develop their social skills, or abilities to interact effectively with others. Shannon starts to learn more about what she can do to incorporate peer-mediated interventions into her classroom.

Integrated Play Groups

First, Shannon learns about integrated play groups. In general, these are orchestrated play situations, where children with autism play freely with their typically-developing peers.

To make a successful integrated play group, the following strategies are helpful:

  • Ensure that there is not too much sensory stimulation in the setting
  • Have toys available that are designed to promote interactive play
  • Ensure that students' interests and capacities are represented in the toys
  • Let students play freely, but observe them as they interact

Shannon collaborates with some of the teachers in her school to create an interactive play group that meets two periods a week in her classroom. That way, her students can remain in a setting where they are comfortable, but have an opportunity to play and talk with typically-developing peers.

Peer Buddies and Tutoring

Another possibility for peer-mediation intervention is a bit more structured. Shannon learns about peer buddies, or situations in which students with autism are partnered with a peer who is meant to work with them in a specific domain. Peer tutoring is a similar construct, though it is usually explicitly oriented toward academics.

Shannon finds that many of her students are excited to have a defined buddy in a general education class and the buddies learn a lot about empathy and communication from these experiences as well. Her higher functioning students can also benefit from math or writing tutoring from a typically-developing peer.

In a successful buddy relationship:

  • The buddy knows about autism and what it means on a developmentally-accessible level.
  • Adults provide opportunities for the buddies to spend time together.
  • Adults help structure some of the time and communication between buddies.
  • There are opportunities to reflect on what is happening in the buddy relationship.

Group-Oriented Contingency

Next, Shannon learns about something called group-oriented contingency. This is more of a behavioral management program, and it means that the behavior of a whole class is reinforced based on the behavior of one student or a small group of students.

Shannon can apply peer-mediated interventions based on group-oriented contingency when her students are in integrated settings. For instance, when they are in the lunch room, Shannon might note that a student from another class is demonstrating excellent table manners. She might positively reinforce these manners in a public way so that her students, too, understand the reinforcement.

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