Countless research studies have shown that peer interaction in the classroom can help facilitate appropriate social interactions in students with autism. The students with autism are provided with multiple opportunities for social interaction and receive feedback from adults. Additionally, peers benefit from interactions, as they learn empathy, acceptance, individual differences, and how to be a peer role model.
When thinking of teaching a lesson about autism to a class of students, it is important to ensure that parents of the student with autism are open to the idea. Perhaps the child is not aware of the diagnosis or does not want other students to know. The lesson should be modified and adapted based on the age and ability level of the students. The lesson should consist of:
Students should be aware of differences around the classroom, school, community, etc. When students grasp the idea that differences are everywhere, they are able to recognize that students are different regardless of a diagnosis. Respect of differences and how to be a kind person should be explicitly taught.
Students should be provided with accurate information about autism and the characteristics that accompany the disorder. Autism as a spectrum is critical to discuss and having a diagnosis does not mean that everyone is the same. It would benefit students to discuss well-known individuals with autism (e.g., Temple Grandin) and show videos to demonstrate that people are different. There are a number of different activities teachers can use with students to illustrate the characteristics of autism.
What autism looks like in the classroom
Showing and informing students of what autism looks like is an important component. When students are informed of different characteristics, they are more prepared for behaviours associated with autism. Therefore, it is less intimidating and familiar when it occurs in the classroom. Some students with autism do not like loud noises, touch, or bright lights and it would benefit the others to know the specific characteristics associated with their classmate. Describing situations that cause stress to the student with autism will prepare the students for the real-life situation.
It is important to keep the tone positive and provide ideas about how they can help support the student with autism. Some things the students can do:
Provide encouragement to the student:
- Say hello to the student
- Ask the student to participate in group activities and make them feel included
- Model appropriate responses in the classroom
- Offer to help the student when they are struggling
Allow for discussion and questions
It is important to allow time for the students to process the information and ask questions. The teacher may provide time for questions a few days after, in addition to questions after the lesson. For some students, this may be the first child with autism they interacted with and have many questions for the teacher to answer.
When students are observed helping the student with autism by using strategies discussed in the lesson, they should be encouraged and verbally reinforced for the effort. If a student attempts a strategy and it does not go as planned, talk with the student about his/her effort and gently encourage the student to try again using a different method. We want to encourage and support peers when interacting with the student.