Students with ASD may struggle with many aspects of the regular curriculum, or may display superior skills in some subject areas. Common areas of difficulty, regardless of academic strengths or challenges, can include problems with transitions, problems understanding social expectations such as personal space, turn-taking and sharing, and difficulty developing and sustaining positive social relationships. Given the right direction and support, peers can be very helpful in creating an environment that nurtures and respects the student with ASD, improving his or her self esteem, engagement and success. The biggest argument against sharing specific information about a child and his/her disability, specifically with peers, is that of increased stigmatization.
Research suggests that child-specific information presented within a broader curriculum about autism does not lead to stigmatization, and may in fact have the opposite effect of helping children better understand and accept their peers with autism. Here are some tips to consider when involving peers in your classroom:
- Work with the family of the student with ASD to agree on what will be important for peers to know and understand about their son or daughter.
- Provide classroom based instruction to all peers regarding acceptance of those with learning strengths and differences. There are excellent books and resources for teaching about neurodiversity that can sensitize the typical student to the effort that is required by someone with a biologically based social learning difficulty such as ASD. Some suggestions are provided below.
- When assigning a peer to work with the student with ASD consider the strengths, interests and personalities of both children. Pair students who will enjoy each others company to enhance the probability of engagement and relationship development.
- Model for peers the language and attitudes that will support the student with ASD. Provide non-judgmental feedback to peers regarding how to talk to the student with ASD unambiguously but positively about what they should or shouldn’t do.
- Give some thought as to how you can showcase the strengths of the student with ASD. Can he or she help another student that is weak in an area in which the student with ASD excels?
- Be alert to potential problems of bullying or teasing. Some research suggests that as many as 90% of students with Asperger’s syndrome have been negatively affected by bullying, teasing or social ostracization at some point in their school careers. Get to the bottom of any reports or complaints quickly and set up systems to prevent any reoccurrence.
Check out the following resources for more information:
The Sixth Sense II by Carol Gray. Classroom based lessons for developing understanding of the challenges of ASD. Most useful for elementary school students.
A free downloadable Powerpoint presentation and student activities pack created in the U.K. (2008) by T.E.S. Connect is available at https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/autism-awareness-11546740 . Most useful for elementary school students.
That’s What’s Different About Me by Heather McCracken. A DVD and program to teach autism awareness to young children.
Smith, S.E. A multi-component autism awareness training for typical peers. As presented at the Autism Society 41st National Conference and Exposition, Dallas Texas, July, 2010