Peer relationships and social interaction in secondary school for students with an ASD
Does this sound familiar to you? Do you have a teenage son or daughter or is there a student at your school who behaves like this?
The core features of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) don’t go away but may look different as kids get older. To really help them you need to be familiar with how their ASD is affecting them now each and every day at home, school and when they are out and about socially.
The following fact sheetPeer relationships and social interaction in secondary school for students with an ASDgives information about ASD and answers questions such as:
-What happens to a person’s sense of self (Who am I?) during adolescence?
-How do teenagers at school usually socialise and make friends?
- How do students with an ASD get on making friends and socialising at school?
- Why do some students with an ASD have difficulty with social interactions at school?
- How we can help students with anASD manage socially at school?
- What else can I read to find out more?
Peer relationships and social interaction in secondary school for students with an ASD
Dr Avril V. Brereton
Most students with an ASD find school challenging at some time or other. This can be the case no matter what the type of school; specialist or mainstream, primary or secondary. The continuing challenges of ASD (difficulties with communication and social skills, emotional and behavioural difficulties) combined with the added demands of secondary school indicate that they will most likely require ongoing support. Difficulties may arise for adolescents with an ASD because of:
•the social interaction required with teachers and students throughout the day and their response to these social and emotional demands
•the student’s learning and thinking style and symptoms of ASD
•difficulties in managing stressful situations
•poor organizational skills
•poor peer social interaction
•insistence on sameness and special interests or obsessions
•difficulties in both understanding and using language
•other co morbid conditions (health, ID and mental health problems)
Adolescence and changes in sense of self and temperament
It is important to place the social relationships and social interaction of students with an ASD in the context of typical adolescent social development.
Adolescence brings major change with regard to a person’s sense of identity.At this stage of life the adolescent grapples with the question “Who am I?”and is interested in finding out who they are, what they are all about and where they are headed in life.
During adolescence, friends and peers become increasingly important as the young person deals with physical and emotional changes. Association with a particular peer group will determine dress, hair style, use of slang, interest in music, and other interests or pursuits. Outsiders are excluded from the peer group. During this period of self-focus, adolescents also pay particular attention to the peer group as a social form of self-regulation. “What do the others think of me and how I look and the things I do and say?” “Do I fit in?”The temperament of the young person contributes to his/her social learning and participation. Some will choose small special interest-based peer groups with a limited number of friends while others may choose to become part of a diverse group. Failure to develop friendships, join a peer group and develop social skills involving group participation at this stage will make it very difficult for that person to cope with the social demands that are part of adulthood including work, independent living and relating to other adults. Adolescents further develop awareness of others’ feelings and perspectives – an understanding that others may view situations and experiences differently.
The social relationships between typically developing peers reach their height of importance during adolescence. Peers provide a protective group in which to establish independence from parents, develop social knowledge, awareness and competence. This intense attachment to the peer group allows adolescents to begin to develop their sense of direction for adult life. Peer groups also strongly influence both positive aspects of behaviour, such as community service, and negative aspects such as smoking, depending on the nature of the peer group leaders and the degree of school and family support provided. Making friends, feeling left out or unpopular and noticing differences in each other become much more important. Their differences and similarities help them discover who they are in relation to others, and what others think about them. The rules for social interaction become more abstract and perhaps flexible and some rules are even unspoken.
Socially, peer interaction has less structure as adolescents spend more time sitting around together, talking and watching others. Language also becomes more complex as vocabulary develops and slang increases (e.g. sarcasm, irony and cynicism). Early adolescence is an important time for friendships within the same sex and the development of close friendships. It is these early special friendships that prepare the young person for later friendships and adult relationships. During adolescence, as interest between the sexes increases, the peer group usually changes and become a mixed sex peer group that will eventually lead to dating and sexual relationships.
How are students with an ASD getting on socially at secondary school?
Over the past twenty years or so, researchers have been investigating how students with an ASD are coping at school and the quality of their experience in that environment.The quality of peer relationships in particular has been a focus. Students with an ASD have the opportunity to gain social skills by beingin an educational setting alongside typically developing adolescents who act as appropriate role models. There is a growing body of evidence that this does not always happen and that students with an ASD may in fact have negative social outcomes. Findings to date have concluded that students with an ASD have fewer friends (Cairns and Cairns, 1994), have more limited socialnetworks (Chamberlain et al., 2003), and experience more rejection fromtheir peers than other children (Symes and Humphrey, 2011). Students with an ASD also report being bullied more than their peers (Humphrey and Symes, 2010a). Surveys of parents have also found that some parents report that their children attending secondary school struggle with a number of social related difficulties such as peer pressure, rejection, isolation and loneliness.
Why do some students with an ASD have difficulty with social interactions at school?
There may be several reasons. Firstly, as the child with an ASD and his peer group become older, behavioural difficulties and social awkwardness may become more obvious and less tolerated by peers. It may also be that the adolescent’s behaviour contributes to negative attitudes and even ridicule from peers.They may want to be socially involved with peers, but their approach may be odd, unusual, and socially inappropriate (e.g. Scheeren et al., 2012). Another factor is that adolescents with an ASD have difficulty with the social use of language (pragmatics). Their social engagement difficulties can be due to poor social conversation skills. For example, they may engage in a prolonged, egocentric conversation with peers based on a fixed topic of interest (e.g. Scheeren et al., 2012). Choosing topics appropriate to the setting and conversation partner and deciding what to say and what is relevant and irrelevant during a conversation is also difficult for students with an ASD (Paul et al., 2009).
Adolescents with an ASD are often anxious and it may be that anxiety leads to poor interactions with peers. In the past, social impairments in ASD have been presumed to be due to indifference or lack of social motivation. Research is helping us to understand that for some adolescents, social difficulties may be associated with heightened arousal and avoidance of social stimuli. In other words, when the adolescent with an ASD finds him/herself in a situation that demands social understanding, their anxiety heightens and they become more socially awkward. Awkward, unsuccessful and sometimes negative social interactions in turn lead to increased anxiety in the adolescent with an ASD so this is a rather perpetuating circle of interaction and reaction. The adolescent is trying to deal quickly with a number of things. What is going on? What is the interaction about? How should I respond? Why is it happening? What are the other people thinking and feeling?
It is understandable that an adolescent with an ASD would want to withdraw from social situations that increase their anxiety rather than try to socialise with peers. It is also understandable that the adolescent with an ASD may lash out or react negatively when they find themselves in a social situation that they experience as threatening or intimidating. Some researchers have suggested that the higher functioning adolescents (HFA and Asperger’s Disorder) are often aware of the difficulties they have and that they are falling behind socially and as a result their anxiety increases (Witwer and Lecavalier 2010; White et al. 2009b).
Adolescents with an ASD usually have to learn aboutthemselves, their feelings and reactions to the social world without the opportunity for peer group discussion, friendship and support. An additional issue may be that the adolescent with an ASD is having difficulty processing a lot of sensory information that adds to their social anxiety because they are feeling overwhelmed, and disorganized or, in other words, emotionally dysregulated. We can help by teaching the young person about themselves and how they are managing their feelings in situations at school that make them feel stressed, anxious or that they are not coping socially. This means helping them to recognise the signs that they are getting worked up or that their engine is running too high. If a student is not in a calm, alert and attentive state they cannot learn.
In a recent study in the UK, (Humphrey and Symes, 2011) observed peer interaction patterns of students with dyslexia, typically developing students and students with anASD at 12 secondary schools during recess times.They observed that the students with an ASD spent more time engaged in solitary behaviours, less time engaged in co-operative interaction with peers, and more time engaging in reactive aggression towards peers than students in either comparison group who spent most of the time talking about things that they do at the weekend or playing cooperativegames. Humphrey and Symes observed that a maladaptive pattern of interaction occurred when students with an ASD lashed out after being teased and bullied or subjected to verbal aggression.Implications of these findings were that there needs to be a two pronged approach that acknowledges the “endogenous (within the child) and exogenous (within the peer group) factors at play in the development of social relationships” (p 414). They suggested that interventions were needed to develop the social and communicative skills of students with an ASDparticularly in the areas ofunderstanding when a social initiation has been made (and how to respondappropriately in this situation) and how to recognize and respond effectivelyto bullying. Additionally they stated:
“sensitively handled approaches to raisingawareness and understanding of ASD.... along with the provisionof clear guidance around how to communicate in an ‘ASD-friendly’manner, will most likely be beneficial in increasing acceptance of difference” (Humphrey and Symes, 2011, p 414).
So how can we help?
- Developing the social and communicative skills of students with an ASD particularly in the areas of understanding when a social initiation has been madeis a relatively new area of research and some evidence is emerging that social communication skills can improve by combining cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) principles and techniques with computer-mediated games to teach the understanding of collaboration and conversation. Try practising problem solving, concept clarification, role-play, and feedback and behavioural rehearsals with the student. Computer games that involve two or more students can be helpful to teach the student how to play with others, communicate about the game and its rules and socially enjoy the company of peers at school.
- Helping the student with an ASD to recognize and respond effectively to bullying.
(i)Verbal bullying. The student may not be able to understand that they are being bullied. Students with an ASD can be taughthow to recognize when they are being bullied verbally through the use of social stories. The student should be included in writing the social story, and discussing responses to being bullied that are then written into the social story. The social story should be “owned “by the student, it is theirs to keep and use. A number of scripts and scenarios may be needed so that the student has a social story he/she can use in the bullying situations they experience. For example they may be bullied on their way to or from school, in the playground or at other school events off campus.
(ii)Reactive aggression is unlikely to be a successful strategy for dealing with physical bullying and aggression from peers. It often makes the problem worse. Teach the student with an ASD how to report incidents to a teacher or other member of staff. Write down what they are to do and who to talk to when they have been bullied. Teach them to walk away from the incident so that it does not escalate. (It is known that students with an ASD are more likely to seek help when they are being bullied if they feel that the person they conﬁde in can be trusted and will help them (Humphrey and Symes, 2010b).
3. Here are some suggestions to help the student to get better at regulating their emotions:
(i)If the student is behaving inappropriately because of dysregulated emotions and mood, don’t correct the behaviour when the student is in the middle of the episode. First, help him/her to recognize how he/she is feeling, give time to calm and soothe him/herself and then move on to ways to solve the problem.
(ii)Change the sensory properties in the classroom – e.g. try modulating your voice, find a quieter, dimmer place in the classroom to reduce sensory overload.
(iii)Provide a calm, attentive model of behaviour to the student – calm voice, sensitive gestures and mood, body posture that lets the student know you are listening.
4.Teaching the peer group how to communicate in an ‘ASD-friendly’ manner.
Having peers who are committed to developing positive relationships can be a crucial step forward for improving the social outcomes of included students with an ASD(Humphrey and Lewis, 2008; Humphrey and Symes, 2010b). Information (discussion groups or information sheets) about how to talk to students with an ASD should be available. (See fact sheet titled “Communication and Conversation – how to talk to a student with ASD”)
Peers of students with an ASD who are willing to interact and socially engage with the student with an ASD can learn to make social advances more explicit, tangible and obvious. Simple things often work, such as saying the name of the student with an ASD when they greet them so that he understands he is being spoken to and that a social approach has been made. Not using slang, metaphors and “in speech” will also help the student with an ASD to understand.
What can teachers and parents do to ensure the best possible social outcomes for adolescents with ASD attending mainstream secondary schools?
- Have written protocols in place to ensure that everyone understands and is aware of the student’s needs. (One page summary sheets are helpful that include information about what this young person does well, struggles with, what sorts of things might make them anxious or upset).
- Where possible, adapt the everyday practice within the school to help the young person.
- In order for the student with an ASD to feel fully included at school, opportunities for quiet time with less social stress or sensory overload should also be provided in the classroom itself. If the classroom is large enough, a quieter corner may be available, or a desk in a position that does not look out into the room. Let the student decide what they would prefer in order that they can stay in the classroom but feel more comfortable.
- Have regular lines of communication and contact with parents who know their child better than anyone. Daily contact may be necessary at times. (It has been shown that in schools where strong, positive relationships between parents and school staff are established that students with an ASD do better socially and academically).
- Provide Professional Development for school staff to increase their knowledge of ASD and provide teaching strategies.
- Consult with speech pathologist about pragmatics skills training and include these goals in the ILP. Pragmatic skills include being able to have a conversation and knowing what to talk about (choosing a topic), how to stay on topic and make relevant comments, and how to keep a conversation going. The speech pathologist should be able to provide ideas to staff.
- Give students an opportunity to talk with adults in a non-threatening environment. In the absence of an opportunity for adolescents with an ASD to talk to peers, it can be helpful for them to talk to parents and teachers who have “been there” and know about adolescence, have life experience and the maturity that comes with age.
- Monitor mental health and report at regular parent teacher meetings. In particular, monitor anxiety, discuss issues and refer on to mental health professionals as appropriate.
- The social world of school is often confusing to students with an ASD. They may not realise that their behaviour is sometimes inappropriate or that others may wish to take advantage of them or bully them. The teacher or support coordinator can meet with the student at the end of each day to talk about how things went during the day. This person can also check in with other staff members about any incidents that may have occurred. Also discuss what the student has managed well and give positive feedback. The student needs to feel safe and secure at school.
References and relevant further reading