By Sarah Johnson
Social training and interaction is an important part of any autistic individual’s treatment or educational plan. Those with autism still long to interact socially, but it can be overwhelming; however, social deficits should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in or avoidance of social situations. Social interaction covers a wide variety of skills ranging from timing and attention to imitation and reciprocity all of which can be challenging to master. This being said, it is important to understand that specific social challenges are different for each individual. These challenges are bi-directional meaning they may manifest themselves as deficits, like a lack of social initiation, or excesses, such as one-sided conversation with a talkative student with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although deficits and excesses present themselves as polar opposites, in both cases the individual impacted is in need of support and teaching since both social behaviors are not quite appropriate.
In the classroom, there are many ways in which teachers can help support peer interaction. One of the most important concepts may be to reach a classroom-wide understanding of what autism is and how it affects the particular individual. Asking the parent of the autistic child to come and share with the class what the child’s greatest strengths and weaknesses help to develop a safe, understanding environment. Parents can explain the quirks, habits, and fears of their child and how their child deals with these things. This way, if the child encounters a fear and starts to lash out, the other children will understand what is going on rather than halting all social interaction with the child. Once an understanding is reached, pair the autistic individual with a typically-developing peer during instances like walking down the hallway, recess, or any other period of unstructured time. This peer should be confident enough to encourage correct social behavior and does not necessarily have to be similarly-aged. It can be helpful to assign an older student to assist a child with autism with classroom activities, especially in the very early grades. In addition to helping with classroom activities, this peer buddy can also be responsible for walking the autistic individual through daily routines, helping with homework, or even attending after school activities together. However, it is just as important to monitor the peer buddy as it is the autistic child. Seat both the autistic individual and their peer buddy toward the front of the classroom. In addition, take the time to sit down with the peer buddy and answer any questions they may have or offer suggestions as to how to navigate some difficult situations. Finally, in regard to the peer buddy, it is vital to be able to switch up buddies when you feel it is necessary. Feeling constantly responsible for inappropriate social behavior or actions can take a toll on a young child, and they may burn out.
But perhaps one of the most important strategies in both treatment and social interaction plans is the development and enforcement of a schedule. Decide upon a consistent schedule of school activities and talk through the schedule with your autistic student. If you know ahead of time that the schedule will change, be sure to talk through this change with your student. This will prevent any meltdowns.
Since it can be hard to reach a point where your child is comfortable interacting with a peer buddy, try employing some of these strategies from Autism Speaks: reinforce what the student does well socially; use behavior-specific praise and concrete reinforcement if needed to shape good social behavior. Model social interaction and reciprocity by taking turns. Teach imitation, motor as well as verbal. Teach context clues and referencing those around you; if everyone else is standing, you should be too! Break social skills into small component parts, and teach these skills through supported interactions. Use visuals as appropriate. For example, if you are having trouble conveying the concept of personal space, use a visual that combines simple sentences and pictures like “Sometimes I stand too close to people. This bothers them. I will try not to stand too close to people.” Employ the use of a picture after each sentence. Next, celebrate strengths and use these to your advantage. Many individuals with autism have a good sense of humor, a love of or affinity for music, strong rote memorization skills, or a heightened sense of color or visual perspective—use these to motivate interest in social interactions or to give a student a chance to shine and be viewed as competent and interesting.
In addition to having a peer mentor at school, consider involving your child in an activity, like after-school care, scouts, or a sport, that encourages adult-supervised interaction. Try to pick an activity that caters to an interest or special talent your child has. Often, children with autism connect with others based on shared interests rather than age or gender. To find potential friends at school, you may want to ask your child’s teacher if there is anyone they seem to get along with particularly well. Then, encourage this friendship by inviting this friend over for a play-date. Your child will be more at ease in their familiar home environment and more mentally available to focus on proper social interaction. It should not be forgotten that there are many other kids out there on the autism spectrum who share very similar interests or even special talents. Parents can use their support groups that they may be a part of to link up with other families and children. Children on the autism spectrum often find it much easier to relate to each other than to non-autistic children, particularly if they share common interests.
Regardless of whether or not the interaction is with a typically-developing peer or another child with autism, social interaction is key to improvement in children with autism. Although it can be hard to foster this interaction, through care and a little bit of courage, it will soon become second-nature for your child.