SF State News {University Communications}

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News Release


Grant boosts SF State research on innovative autism treatment

New study evaluates effectiveness of play therapy in improving autistic children's social engagement, communication and play development


SAN FRANCISCO, January 26, 2009 -- SF State Professor Pamela Wolfberg has received a $445,000 grant to test and refine an innovative autism treatment. The grant, from the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, will support a study that evaluates Wolfberg's model of group play therapy in improving autistic children's social engagement, communication and symbolic play.

In the 1980s, Wolfberg created a play therapy model involving autistic children and normally developing children playing together in guided activities that promote social interaction, communication and play development. These Integrated Play Groups are already running in Bay Area public schools, as well as in dozens of schools and community programs elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. This three-year study will provide additional empirical evidence measuring their effectiveness.

"Because children with autism experience challenges in social interaction, communication and imagination, they are at risk of being rejected by their peers and many miss out on the vital play experiences that are important to every child growing up," said Wolfberg, associate professor of special education. "This rigorous testing of Integrated Play Groups will give parents and caregivers the confidence that enrolling their child in this intervention will improve their child's behavior and communication. The results will also help us continually improve the model design."

Beginning in January, Wolfberg and colleagues will examine whether 30 autistic children participating in a 24-week Integrated Play Group show greater improvements in play, social and communication behaviors than a control group who do not participate. Behavioral changes will be evaluated by observation and parent ratings. The study will test whether improvements remain stable over time and extend beyond the play group to home and school. Bay Area children aged 5-10 years will be recruited through after school programs in partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District.

Thirty normally developing children will also take part in the play groups. Elliot Turiel, professor of cognition and development at University of California, Berkeley, will evaluate whether participation leads these children to show greater sensitivity, tolerance and acceptance toward their autistic playmates.

"With 1 in 150 children being diagnosed with autism, the next generation needs to understand how to engage with individuals on the autism spectrum," Wolfberg said. "Fostering awareness in today's children means we'll see a new generation of adults who will know how to welcome and include people with autism in all aspects of life."

Wolfberg's study is one of 13 research projects to receive a new treatment grant from Autism Speaks, the nation's largest organization dedicated to funding and facilitating autism research. In addition to Turiel, she will collaborate with independent researcher Mila DeWitt. Graduate students at SF State and University of California, Berkeley will also assist with the research.

Parents and caregivers interested in enrolling their child in Integrated Play Groups should contact the Autism Institute on Peer Relations and Play. Visit www.autisminstitute.com or e-mail info@autisminstitute.com

San Francisco State University is the only master's-level public university serving the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin. The University enrolls more than 30,000 students each year. With nationally acclaimed programs in a range of fields -- from creative writing, cinema and biology to history, broadcast and electronic communication arts, theatre arts and ethnic studies -- the University's more than 140,000 graduates have contributed to the economic, cultural and civic fabric of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

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