Helping children with autism to become more engaged in the playground while building social skills
It is a common assumption about children with autism that they choose to spend time alone. During my time as a special support assistant in a special school, I frequently observed voluntary exclusion from playground games by some children with autism. However, I came to question whether this was a matter of personal choice, or because social skills interventions implemented by staff, such as Circle of Friends and Social Skills Groups, were not geared towards individual needs.
I noticed that some children with autism were often simply told what to do by adults, including myself. For example, they may be told “go and play with…”, “don’t kick that ball, they are playing a game”, or “don’t stand too close to…”. General commands were directed at the children, but often those with autism did not appear to understand what they could and could not do in the playground, and it was this that then led to their voluntary exclusion from playtimes. However, some members of the tutor group I worked closely with had developed their own friendship skills and moved from the edge of the playground as observers, to being active participants in playtime games. As there were then no playtime mentors at the school, it appeared that these children had developed their own confidence and friendship skills without the direct intervention of adults.
As a result of my observations, and as part of my Masters dissertation, I implemented a friendship mentoring scheme at the school. This small-scale project involved pairing up four pupils with autism for one playtime per week over a period of four weeks, and conducting individual interviews and a self-assessment process to monitor their development. During the implementation of the scheme, the patterns of participation were altered in accordance with the children’s preferences; they chose who to spend time with in the playground and which activities they became involved in. The pairs consisted of one child who opted for voluntary exclusion during playtime and one who appeared to develop friendships independently of adult intervention. I believed that one pupil could assist the other in the development of autonomous social skills. However, when it came to who they wished to befriend, the pupils made decisions contrary to those I had expected, and again my assumptions about children with autism were dispelled!
The friendship mentoring scheme showed that, by introducing social skills programmes in collaboration with children with autism, it may be possible to increase the positive development of their social skills. It also demonstrated that teaching social and emotional language to children with autism is essential to the development of their communication in social situations.
The current model of language development, in the form of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), teaches operative and functional language, with little room for social linguistics. We expect children with autism to learn to play with others, but, if we do not provide them with the necessary tools, how will friendships be created?
My scheme was designed to encourage independence and the self-motivated creation of effective peer relationships, and it highlighted how children with autism could make decisions about friendship and activities with others. By listening to their individual choices, and using a social skills intervention that moved away from the imposed, deficit model, such as Social Skills Groups, and instead focused on the strengths of the individuals, assumptions about the children and their friendship skills were removed and the children’s own opinions could come to the fore. It was important to include the children’s views to encourage their independence and autonomy. Providing each child with the opportunity to choose how the intervention was implemented also enabled them to progress at their own rate.
The scheme provided a structure for playtimes which gave the children guidelines and meant that they had less information to process during this time. By removing several factors, such as other pupils, other adults, and unstructured games, many potential causes of stress were eliminated and the pupils found playtimes easier. Therefore, their decisions at playtime may have more accurately reflected their personal choices, and may have been less influenced by external factors. If children with autism are provided with a more accessible framework and individually focussed social skills interventions, such as friendship mentoring schemes, their social development may prove more successful in the long term.
Within these frameworks, it is important that choice is offered. While a structure proved important in this scheme, the option to make a decision based on personal preference was also imperative. Many current social skills interventions, such as Circle of Friends and Social Skills Groups, do not offer choice. The child is included whether they wish to be or not, and the intervention is carried out around them. This is also true, in my experience, of Social Stories, where the author can assume the child’s preferences and create a document based on those assumptions, without seeking the input of the child. While I understand that some children with autism may find it more difficult to communicate their choices, it is still important that an element of choice is offered. A non-verbal child may point to one picture or activity over another, whilst a high functioning child may discuss their preferences.
The experience of my friendship mentoring scheme has made me review how I work with children with autism, focusing on them as individual children, rather than focusing primarily on their autism. It has also altered my perception of the way I, and other professionals, work with all children, with or without autism. The importance of teaching based on children’s individual strengths, without making assumptions about their deficits, cannot be overstressed. Every child has a voice, and it is important that we as professionals listen to these voices and tailor children’s social development according to their specific and self-identified needs.
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 42: September/October 2009.