Supporting peer inclusion and understanding of autism in the classroom

Emily Acraman

A guide for parents and educators came about through two questions for researcher Emily Acraman about how to create an inclusive school environment for an autistic child and ways to offer classmates an understanding of autism. Here’s her tips.

PEER ATTITUDES towards individuals with autism play a significant role in the success of the inclusive classroom, and the overall outcomes for all students involved. For the autistic student, peer understanding, and acceptance increases the opportunity for social learning and improved outcomes. For the neurotypical student, it offers opportunities to learn about difference, tolerance, and compassion which are key leadership qualities (Hehir et al, 2016).

Here are our top tips on how to promote autism acceptance, inclusion and understanding among peers in the classroom.

# 1 – Normalise difference

It is a great idea to firstly talk about difference. Everyone is different and that is what makes us unique. Sometimes it is easier to introduce the topic of difference with children in terms of physical difference, e.g. short, tall, blond hair, black hair. These differences are normal, and it is important to accept these differences.

Brain differences are just the same. We all have different brains and we all have different strengths and challenges. Autism is just another type of difference which is just as normal as any other (Reframing Autism, 2019).

# 2 – Information promotes understanding

 

Providing and sharing information about autism is the next step in promoting understanding among peers. Information puts fears into perspective, and for many young people with no experience of autism or disability in general a lack of information can lead to incorrect assumptions (Campbell, 2016).

Tips for teachers/parents on delivering autism information to the class (Larkay, 2015):

  • Tailored information which is specific to the individual is helpful. However, it is essential the autistic student and their whanau are comfortable sharing information and having their diagnosis or difference talked about.
  • Explain why the autistic student may have difficulties in certain situations – this is especially important if the individual has sensory sensitivities. Help the classmates to come up with tips which could support the student around these sensitivities. For example, if the individual dislikes sudden loud noises, maybe the class could decide to not slam the desks or doors.
  • Explain why the autistic students behaviour might look different – for example hand flapping or repetitive noises. Explain why this happens, and that this behaviour serves a purpose. For a lot of people with autism this behaviour helps them to self-regulate and stay calm and relaxed. Maybe the class could identify whether there are things they do themselves to help self-regulate – maybe they click their pen on and off when they are concentrating?
  • Explain if there are any differences to regular classroom participation – Does the individual receive extra support in class, e.g. maybe they have special support staff, or they take breaks regularly and leave the classroom. If so, it is important the other children in the class know why this happens.
  • Allow the other children in the class to ask their own questions.

#3 – Appoint peers as buddies

  • Using peers as buddies for autistic students is another way which has been found to promote acceptance (Campbell, 2016). Buddies could be used to help an autistic student navigate social interactions during play times, for instance morning tea and lunch time. These unstructured times during the school day are often the times where autistic students feel most anxious and unsure about ‘normal’ social rules and what may be expected of them.
  • Use special interests as a way to pair children up.
  • Note: autistic children should never be forced to play with others. Morning tea and lunch time are their breaks too, so they should be offered opportunities to do things that they enjoy and find relaxing (Goodall, 2013).

#4 – Encourage communication and interaction among students

Communication difficulties are one of the main characteristics of autism. Often people with autism struggle to make eye contact, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention or listening. Encouraging peer interaction is important in aiding acceptance and inclusion. While specific communication methods will vary for each individual with autism, in general encourage all students to:

  • Start with names – encourage ALL students to use individual’s names first, pause and then continue communication. This gives all students, time to recognise someone is speaking to them. For an autistic student, this is really important.
  • Be nice – Kindness goes a long way when communicating with anybody. For an autistic person who may be anxious when communicating and interacting with their peers, a complement or encouraging statement can be especially important in aiding positive interactions.
  • Be patient – Sometimes autistic people find it difficult to communicate how they feel or what they mean. As well, autistic people usually have trouble understanding non-verbal communication (e.g. body language), so in a way they are only receiving half of the message.
  • Listen carefully – Autistic people usually take language very literally, which means there is often lots of opportunity for misunderstanding. For example, if you were to say with an exaggerated tone of voice: “Great! This is just what I need right now”. An autistic person may not be able to pick up on the sarcasm, and the meaning behind the statement. If you listen carefully you may be able to pick up on these misunderstandings and clarify them when they occur.
  • Explain things (nicely) – be clear when you communicate and explain if you think the person you are communicating with has misunderstood you or has not picked up on your social cues. For example, if the conversation is going on and on and the person you are speaking to has not understood that you are trying to wrap it up, be clear. You could say “it has been great talking with you, but I need to finish this conversation as I have to get to my next class”.
  • Communication strategies – if the autistic student uses a particular communication strategy or device (e.g. PECS or sign language), then the whole school should also learn how to communicate this same way, so the student is able to engage with any staff or students (Goodall, 2013).

#5 – Address sensory needs

Most people with autism will have one or more sensory sensitivities.

They may be hyper or hyposensitive to certain stimuli, e.g, be affected by a desk banging or door shutting but not bothered by loud music, or they find all loud sounds unpleasant, but seek out interesting smells.

Explain these to the other children in the class. The National Autistic Society (UK based) has a great video which gives people a look into what navigating the sensory world can be like for an autistic person https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPknwW8mPAM

If changes are being made to the classroom to accommodate these sensitivities communicate this to the other students in the class. Maybe the students can come up with ideas on how to make the classroom environment more ‘autism friendly’. Ideally you want to encourage an environment where everybody feels comfortable and as though they belong, and that everyone is responsible for one another (Goodall, 2013).

Other helpful resources:

  • About Autism Booklet – developed by Parent to Parent
  • Reframing autism – Talking to children about autism. Webinar which details how to talk to your child about their autism – also applies for talking to all children about autism. You can also find a great tip sheet here.
  • My Friend with Autism by Beverley Bishop. A great book which promotes tolerance and understanding among peers. A peer narrator explains his autism friend is good at some things, and not so good at others – just like everyone else.
  • Beth and the Bracelets by Jessica Falconer. Another great book which deals with emotional overload, dealing with a complicated life, and the hope adults can give to children who are different. Delivered from the perspective of autism, without overtly stating so.

Hehir, T., Grindal, T., Freeman, B., et al. (2016). A summary of the evidence on inclusive education. Abt Associates. Retrieved from https://alana.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/A_Summary_of_the_evidence_on_inclusive_education.pdf
Reframing Autism. (2019). Talking to children about autism: a tip sheet. Reframing Autism. Retrieved from https://www.reframingautism.com.au/resources/talking-to-children-about-autism-a-tip-sheet
Campbell, J. (2016). Teaching peers about autism. Organization for Autism Research. Retrieved from https://researchautism.org/teaching-peers-about-autism/
Larkay, S. (2015). Promoting understanding in the classroom. Sue Larky. Retrieved from https://suelarkey.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Promoting-Understanding-in-the-Classroom.pdf
Campbell, J. (2016). Importance of peer inclusion for autism. Organization for Autism Research. Retrieved from https://researchautism.org/the-importance-of-peers-in-inclusive-education-for-individuals-with-asd/
Garcia, A. (2017). A neurotypicals guide to speaking to someone with autism. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/dear-neurotypical-guide-to-autism#1

  • Emily Acraman is a researcher at Parent to Parent.

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