Could Peers Be the Solution to Support Children with Autism in the Classroom?
“Put a para with the student” seems to be a quick solution that many school teams jump to when looking for ways to support students with autism. And while there are some positives to adult support—including more frequent reinforcement opportunities, constant supervision, and individualized academic modifications—there are some big hurdles to this type of support as well. To start with, paraprofessionals are typically not coming out of the woodwork in a school building. Finding enough staff, training those student-specific interventions and then retaining those skilled professionals is an ongoing process in the school system.
Aside from actually finding staff to support students, classmates and teachers may develop a negative perception of the student with autism. This may not be intentional, but sometimes those children with autism are left out of more inclusive opportunities because they are perceived to already have a “partner” or that the student does not want additional interactions. Furthermore, children do not interact the same way with one another when an adult is present; therefore, the child with autism can be excluded from naturally occurring interactions which can inhibit an oftentimes already stunted social repertoire. So if putting an adult with the struggling student is not the best solution, what other options are there?
It takes a village to teach students with autism, but usually we only think of adults as making up that support community. Research continues to show that not only do students with autism respond better to interventions that are modeled by same-age neurotypical peers, but it also has positive benefits for those peers by increasing their empathy, advocacy and leadership skills. Additionally, a community of students supporting their classmates with autism increases inclusivity and normalizes diversity which can greatly impact the community’s emotional well-being.
So great, we’ll plan to use peers to help students with autism. What now? Simply “sticking” a neurotypical peer with a student with autism may not yield the intended results because those peers may not have been exposed to people with autism and are likely not equipped to respond to the academic or social needs that the student with autism requires. Providing peer training sessions can be a wonderful way to help inform and educate classmates to disabilities as a whole, while also allowing them to understand specific interventions and tactics for helping address the student with autism’s needs.
Peer Training Sessions
While “peer training sessions” may sound fancy, all it really means is teaching, practicing, and giving feedback to the selected peers so that they can effectively help teach the identified student. These peers can act as models by demonstrating the desired behavior or they could act in more of a teacher-role by being peer mentors. As a general guideline, these training sessions should occur at minimum once a week for at least 15 minutes depending on the age of the student and the complexity of the skill that they are helping teach the student. The initial training should involve the teacher modeling how to use the intervention. So, if the teacher is using a Language Builder picture card of a banana to have the student with autism match a 3-D banana, the teacher should model that prompting sequence with the actual materials so that the peer can act as a mentor to teach the skill. After the teacher models, next comes guided practice.
As the peer mentor practices “being the teacher,” the teacher should provide positive feedback and give suggestions or remodel as necessary. It is also a good idea to provide suggestions for what to do if the identified student has an incorrect response. Data should also be a driving force when making decisions; so be sure to have a very simple to use data sheet that the peer could use and train them by modeling, practicing, and giving feedback. This data should be a very simple “yes or no” type system that the student can very easily use during the session.
Once the peer is trained, observe the student with the identified student during their first several sessions to help as needed. After that, follow up peer training sessions can be to check in on progress and troubleshoot any issues. As a guideline, try to continue to have weekly training sessions with the peer mentors for the first 6 weeks and then training can be faded to monthly or quarterly as needed.
Application at Home or Work
Peer mentors or models do not have to be limited to a school setting. The same principles can be applied to life skills and vocational skills in the home or community. Research continues to show that social narratives through pictures, videos, or in real-time are incredibly effective in skill acquisition for children with autism. If your child is struggling with a bedtime routine and you are not able to film or photograph them being successful in any part of the sequence, consider using a peer like their sibling, neighbor or cousin if they are willing to help.
For academic skills, Stage Learning Materials has recently developed the ARIS curriculum that helps apply some of these early language concepts that are incredibly user-friendly and could similarly be modeled or even implemented by a sibling, cousin or neighbor if the adult is willing to have regular training sessions with the peer mentors.
Begin with the End in Mind
When using a peer-mediated intervention, it’s important to begin with the end in mind. Too often, students with autism are able to demonstrate a skill only with this one person or only during speech, but they aren’t able to generalize it to different settings, people, or circumstances. Once your identified student has shown success in demonstrating a skill, you should consider implementing the same sequence in another setting with the same peer and then train a different a different peer until the student is able to fluently access the skill across settings and individuals.
It takes a village to help support students with autism. Hopefully by enlisting peers into that village, you will be able to see positive outcomes for your student and the greater school community by building a more caring, more inclusive culture.
“Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention.” National Professional Development Center on ASD, 2015, pp. 1–30. Autism Focused Intervention Resources & Modules, https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/sites/afirm.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/resources/PMII EBP Brief Packet.pdf.
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Swaim, K. F., & Morgan, S. B. (2001). Children’s attitudes and behavioral intentions toward a peer with autistic behaviors: Does a brief educational intervention will have an effect? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(2), 195-205.
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Dunn, Michelle A. S.O.S. Social Skills in Our Schools: a Social Skills Program for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Including High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and Their Typical Peers. Autism Asperger Pub., 2006.