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Developing peer awareness in schools can go a long way in shifting perceptions of autism, writes Joy Beaney

Children with autism have many strengths but they have a different way of thinking and making sense of the world. This can often lead to difficulties in communicating and interacting with peers, as well as inflexible or rigid thinking. They may also have unusual responses to sensory stimuli.

The classroom and playground can be overwhelming places for all children, so with the added struggle of interacting with teachers and peers when you have autism, it is easy to see why this can be a barrier to academic, personal and social development.

One issue identified by the National Autistic Society is that “Autistic children and young people can be more at risk of being bullied than their peers because of the different ways they communicate and interact with others” (NAS website 2017).

Understanding the reasons why a pupil with autism reacts as they do in particular situations, can help prevent misunderstandings and reduce the likelihood of bullying. Increasing the awareness and understanding of autism with the child’s peers can help to change attitudes. Enabling the child’s peers to understand how they can be supportive and inclusive will help the child with autism to thrive socially, emotionally and educationally alongside their fellow pupils.

Promoting acceptance

A major focus of my work when advocating for children with autism in mainstream schools was to implement practical strategies and approaches to reduce barriers to learning. However, whilst these strategies undoubtedly helped children to cope with day-to-day problems, it became evident that when the children reached eight or nine years of age, new issues emerged surrounding the difficulties they had with social acceptance.

Leading an outreach team supporting children with autism in mainstream schools gave me the opportunity to consider the social difficulties children with autism were having and the role played by the child’s peers in successful inclusion. School staff encouraged children to behave in an inclusive way, but awareness training for all children, that would promote acceptance and understanding of autism, was just not taking place. We aimed to tackle this situation head on by going into schools and giving whole school assemblies about autism. We used the letters of the word “autism” to deliver key messages and introduce some ways the children could help.  We felt it was important to give a positive message about autism, describing the pupils’ strengths but also explaining the differences and possible challenges the pupils with autism might face.

We asked for volunteers who would like to find out about ways to support their peers and become the “champions” of children with autism. We then worked with groups of these children aged between  eight and 11 years and, meeting weekly, we delivered lessons to increase their autism awareness, concentrating on accepting and valuing difference.

The lessons focused on the following topics:

  • everyone is different
  • communication
  • sensory differences
  • understanding our feelings
  • being a good friend
  • how to be an autism champion.

During the final lesson, the volunteers were asked to suggest ideas to ensure school was a fun and positive place to be for a child with autism. Some of their ideas were innovative and compassionate and showed just how well the children had understood the course. The volunteers were awarded badges to wear at playtimes so other pupils could identify them. They helped at transition times, break times and lunchtimes and staff reported that this had helped to reduce the anxiety of pupils with autism during these stressful times in the school day.

Many of the peer awareness materials and resources used in this kind of awareness training can also be used to fulfil an individual school’s particular needs. For example, an autism awareness assembly could stand alone and be delivered to the whole school to promote understanding of autism. Lessons can be delivered to all pupils in a class and form part of the school’s PSHE curriculum module focusing on “Accepting Difference”. Teaching peers about Autism could take place in a generalised way, when it does not relate to an individual, or it could be much more specific to the needs of a particular child.

Involving families

It is essential to work in partnership with the child and their parent to let them know of the school’s plans to raise awareness of autism and the benefits this could bring for their child. School staff need to be sensitive to the fact that some parents may not have told their child about the diagnosis or may not wish for this information to be common knowledge. However, peer awareness assemblies can have a very positive effect on children and staff; children with autism who were reticent about disclosure often feel that these assemblies have helped to raise their self-esteem and confidence.

The child’s views must be respected and it is vital to discuss if they wish to contribute to the assembly or lesson and what information about themselves they would like shared. Some children may prefer not to be present, but would like staff to explain certain things about them, for example, why they react in a particular way or what their sensory sensitivities are like. Parents have an invaluable insight into their child and may be able to provide useful information and strategies that they would like to be shared. Sometimes the parents and the pupil have discussed what they would like others to know and have prepared a poster with drawings and written information that they wish to share.

Schools that have taken part in this kind of peer awareness programme have noticed significant improvement; pupils with autism were observed to have more positive and confident interactions with their peers, as the volunteers who completed the peer awareness training created a support network for them. In addition, the volunteers were more empathetic towards the children with autism as they had gained a greater understanding of their individual strengths and weaknesses, both as children with autism and, more importantly, as their peers and friends

Rather than putting the onus on those with autism to “fit in” with school and society, we owe it to them to ensure that future generations will recognise, and empathise with, their particular challenges, without losing sight of their individual personalities and talents. Only in this way will we be able to cultivate an inclusive and accepting society that truly embraces and celebrates difference.

Further information

A former SENCO, assistant headteacher and inclusion centre manager, Joy Beaney is the founder of Autism Train, which provides a range of training on autism. She is the author of Creating Autism Champions:

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