Kids with and without autism play together in an integrated play group. For San Francisco State University researcher Pam Wolfberg, it is about encouraging two autistic kids, Max and Chris, to model peer behavior.
"Kids are learning about social roles, social rules, they are learning about social status," said Wolfberg. "They are figuring out what social meaning is, and just human behavior and non-verbal and verbal communication,"
Pretend play is challenging for kids on the autism spectrum. Chris wants to do one thing -- bounce on the ball. The assistant is constantly redirecting him back into the group. It is called guided participation.
Nine-year-old Max has been diagnosed as mildly autistic. He is given a visual reminder of how to ask his friend to play with him. Wolfberg sits at the back of the room, observing, while a camera records the play group.
The kids meet at Grattan Elementary in San Francisco for an hour, twice a week, for three months. Max's parents don't mind traveling from Vallejo because they say they have already seen a difference in their child's behavior.
"He's chattier. He's more confident," said father Paul Wilke. "His personality shines through even more."
The participation of the other non-autistic kids is key. A year ago, they went through an orientation process to debunk all the myths of autism and learn how to interact with these kids.
"And to acquire empathy and understanding for the unique ways that kids communicate, relate, play and think," said Wolfberg.
Still, at times, the kids drift into two separate groups. In one instance, one group wants to pretend they're in a prison, while the other wants to play with bugs. That is when Wolfberg intervenes. With some redirection, they are once again integrated.
With the help of their peers, these positive social experiences help to motivate children with autism to interact with others outside the room.
"What I hope for him is everything you would hope for any child, obviously. And it's just to be happy and get through the day and work and take care of himself and just grow every day," said mother Jennifer Wilke.
"Hopefully in the future this will be a much more inclusive world and with the number of kids with autism being diagnosed, we all better be prepared for that," said Wolfberg.