Socialising as a whole is challenging for people with Autism. Things like reading facial expression and body language, making small talk and simply “fitting in” can present challenges for people with Autism.
Socialising in a school context can be particularly challenging though and unfortunately many people with Autism encounter bullying at one point or another. This can be due to so many people with Autism being disinterested or find it challenging to socialise with people their own age. Additionally, the stereotypical school break can add to the challenges of socialising as it can be so difficult for someone with Autism to deal with large open spaces like the school yard, cope with the many smells and noises associated with school breaks and partake in games like other children (some children with Autism find losing difficult, many like very definitive rules in a game and others are simply enthralled by their own thoughts or imagination or will only play games they like).
It is a delicate balancing act for teachers and SNAs between gently encouraging children with Autism to get involved at break time and become friends with other children their own age and getting on the child’s nerves and making them even more apprehensive in terms of mixing with other children.
Here are some tips which may be useful in terms of addressing problems with socialising in school for children with Autism:
Identify the Problem: As we always seek to emphasise, Autism is a huge spectrum, it affects different people in different ways and so often the problems around socialising may arise in different ways. For example, some children might like to socialise and be included but end up getting very upset if things do not go as they would like them to. Others may be keen to get involved but simply struggle with how to go about it or find it difficult to find common ground with other children while others are naturally very introverted and struggle to socialise at all. It is important to look at each child with the condition individually, identify their own specific difficulties with socialising and seek to take steps to help them in this regard.
Consider a Buddy System: These can work really well, particularly if a child’s parents are OK with you explaining Autism to the other children involved. If a child in your class has Autism, is finding it difficult to socialise or would be at risk in terms of getting bullied, why note try and identify 2-3 students in the class who are known for their kindness or being a little bit more mature to be a “buddy” to the child concerned. They would be asked to make a special effort to include him/her in games, talk to them in school and speak to you if they feel that he/she is being bullied/excluded.
Try to find a special interest: As some students with Autism struggle to socialise, they simply find it difficult to make conversation or relate to others their own age, this can be a really useful tool for breaking barriers. Try to find out (it shouldn’t be hard!) if the child concerned has a particular interest or passion. This could be movies, books or video games. Try to arrange for them to have socialising opportunities with other pupils with similiar interests whether this be in the form of a break time, after-school club or simply a once-off ice-breaker – it could be very worthwhile!
Educate your students about diversity: Where people are accepted and respected for who they are, everyone benefits in the long run. Students who are exposed to people with different challenges at a young age benefit from learning to be more understanding and compassionate. Why not take steps to talk about inclusion and even disabilities like Autism in your class. Stress that different is not just OK – but brilliant! Highlight how everyone in the class looks a little different, has different challenges and is good at or finds certain things difficult. Challenge students to consider what it would be like to be lonely or not involved in the school yard and ask people to make a special effort to be inclusive.
Try to make playtime comfortable: So many challenges associated with Autism are exasperated by the anxiety so often felt by those with the condition. Try to make school breaks and other socialising opportunities comfortable for any children with Autism in your class so as to maximise their chances of getting involved in social activities. Assure them they can opt-out if they feel uncomfortable, if their SNA is at playtime tell them they can come up to them if they feel worried or upset. Try to make the play area well-defined and to devise some supports in terms of coping with the noises and smells.