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Picture books help preschool students understand their peers with autism

Books enable psychology researchers to engage with young minds and promote inclusiveness

A series of picture books created by a team of researchers at the University of Wollongong (UOW) aims to help young children support and understand their friends who are living with autism.

Developed by Professor Mitch Byrne, from UOW’s School of Psychology, in collaboration with doctoral student Lidija Balaz, the three books are targeted at those aged between three and five and explore the experiences of children with autism who attend mainstream preschools.

The Understanding Our Peers series grew out of a program of the same name, which won the National Recognition Advancement Award from Autism Spectrum Australia in 2015.

Ms Balaz said the books were a natural extension of the program and are the perfect way to engage with young minds in a way that is fun, educational and requires no training on behalf of early childhood educators.

Understanding Our Peers Book“Story books are a common way of teaching children basic academic and social skills, as well as strategies to manage problems,” Ms Balaz said.

“We have developed three books which capture the main challenges experienced by young children who have autism in mainstream preschools and how their friends can understand, support and play with them in different ways.

‘What’s really good about these books is that they are no different to any other story book.”

Understanding Our Peers focuses on peer education to enable children without autism to normalise the behaviour of children who are on the autism spectrum, find commonalties with their autistic peers, and help non-autistic children engage with their autistic peers in a positive way.

Earlier versions of the program have been implemented and tested at a number of schools across New South Wales, with results showing it significantly improved the knowledge and attitudes of adolescents towards students with high-functioning autism.

The current version brings that knowledge to the preschool environment.

“There are numerous social skills programs and behavioural interventions which aim to make the child on the autism spectrum more like their peers,” Professor Byrne said. “But the fact is that being autistic is a part of who the person is.”

Professor Byrne and Ms Balaz have been working with the support of Autism Spectrum Australia to see if the books make a difference in the way children who do not have autism interact with their peers who are on the autism spectrum.

“So far, the data is very encouraging and it seems that social relationships have improved and the children with autism are experiencing a more inclusive and enjoyable preschool environment.”

The books are available through UOW and come with a user guide for teachers who want to extend upon the concepts.

“We hope that all preschools will include these books into their story time and we believe that not only children on the autism spectrum will benefit from the development of their peers skills and attitudes, but also children with other disabilities,” Professor Byrne said.

Main picture: Doctoral student Lidija Balaz with Professor Mitch Byrne. Credit: Paul Jones

Posted in Education
Tagged: Autism, Psychology