Many students on the autism spectrum have difficulty working in a group. The reason relates to some of the characteristics of ASD. Some students have difficulty processing oral information. When multiple directions are given all at once to the class, the student with ASD may only hear the first or last word provided which leads to not knowing all of the expectations and perhaps making a mistake. Often in group work, the entire group is provided with one sheet of information about the assignment. The student on the spectrum may not understand how to ask to see the assignment. Therefore, the student with ASD may sit quietly not attempting the work or may talk to partners about irrelevant topics due to anxiousness. None of which may be appropriate. Being in a group also includes knowing how to socially get along with the people in the group. Social skills is a primary challenge for students on the autism spectrum. Each social skill needed in group work must be taught. Often other students need to learn these skills as well. Below are suggestions on how to support students on the autism spectrum who are working with a partner and/or in a small group.
Working with a Partner
When the teacher announces to the class that they are going to work with a partner, the student on the spectrum may not know how to choose a partner that will guide and support them appropriately. Try giving the student a choice of who he can work with. The teacher chooses the best option of those who will work successfully with the student on the spectrum. For example, write two student names on a small piece of paper and give it to the student with ASD ahead of asking the class to choose their partners. Give the student time to process. After a bit, have the student with ASD either circle a name or tell you the choice for his partner. Writing the choices down and allowing extra time for processing the information, will help the student with ASD make a choice and feel less anxious. Giving the student with ASD a choice helps the student to be in control of the decision. Once the student can work with one classmate well, try having the student work with two and then three; gradually working toward a small group.
Once the partner is chosen, give the partner and the student on the spectrum specific written step-by-step directions to follow. If the student with ASD can’t read the words, print the directions using pictures with images (e.g., use resources like Google or Lesson Pix) specific to the student’s ability level. Some students with ASD will need a time limit while others will become anxious if a time is placed on the partner work. Get to know what is best for the student in your class.
Working in a Small Group
To prepare your class that there will be group work today, write on the board a short agenda or use a work system so all can be prepared. For the student with ASD, the teacher may need to say the students name and then point to the board to note the agenda. Sometimes students on the autism spectrum are unaware of their surroundings and do not understand how to follow instructions given to an entire group. Saying their name and pairing it with a gesture (point), brings their attention to key points.
Like partner work, think of those who will work best with the student with ASD. Students with autism do best with predictability and structure. Merely assigning students to work in a group is not enough. Build in structure. For example, assigning jobs to specific places at the table helps to create structure. To make group work more predictable, provide visual supports. Consider this example:
- Number the places at the table with the number of students seated at the table.
- Assign roles to each of the numbers by typing the roles on a paper. Emphasize the importance of each role and teach the class the responsibility of each of the jobs before the group work starts. For example:
- Place 1: The administrator knows the strengths of everyone in the group and can utilize their talents in the group project;
- Place 2: The illustrator has great drawing abilities;
- Place 3: The presenter doesn’t mind sharing the groups ideas and final project;
- Place 4: The writer has good penmanship;
- Place 5: The assistant is someone that can give directions in a simple and concrete manner; maybe making a “to do” list for individuals;
- Place 6: The videographer if the project includes taking videos;
- Place 7: The researcher looks up facts on the internet; or
- Place 8: The carrier makes sure the group has all of the materials needed for the assignment and returns the materials to the proper place after the work is complete.
Another idea is to create a rubric of the important elements expected in the assignment for everyone in the group to be able to check off as completed. Also, with input from the students set rules for the group so everyone knows what is allowed socially. Post the rules in the room for all to see. For example, the volume level allowed when working (e.g., normal inside talking voice, not whispering and not yelling), allow movement within the group but describe what this will look like (e.g., stand up while working, stay in group area, can sit on a ball, can get a tissue; but can’t talk with other groups and must stay on topic).
Think about the skills the student with ASD will need to work in a group. Here is a short list to get started: joining the group, giving an opinion on a topic, disagreeing with a person in the group, communicating your ideas effectively, listening carefully to others ideas, asking a question to clarify what one understands, supporting a teammate, having the attitude of what can we learn instead of who’s to blame for a mistake, problem solving, taking responsibility for own part in project. As the class practices these social skills, watch for additional skills to teach to the whole class. This list will continue to grow as you as the teacher watches how your student’s continue to work in groups. As a result, take ten minutes before the group is assigned once a week to teach a social skill to the entire class. Other students in class may need to learn the skill as well. Remember social skills are difficult; therefore, students need to be reinforced when the skill is performed. Take time during the lesson to specifically tell or write a note to the students about what they are doing well.
Providing visuals supports, clear expectations, and predictability; plus, teaching social skills for group work will help the student with ASD in your classroom to be successful.
Bellini, S. (2007). The collective outcomes of school-based social skill interventions for children on the autism spectrum. The Reporter, 12(3), 1-3. Retrieved from The-Collective-Outcomes-of-School-Based-Social-Skill-Interventions-for-Children-on-the-Autism-Spectrum.
Larriba-Quest, K. (2017). Reinforcement in the classroom. The Reporter, 21(18). Retrieved from reinforcement-in-the-classroom.
Dubie, M. (2019) Group work in a general education classroom for students with asd. Retrieved from group-work-in-a-general-education-classroom-for-students-with-asd