School is social and for autistic kids, this can be tricky to navigate. Social situations– essentially any situations where space is shared with others– can be difficult because the expectations are not consistently explicit and clear. Throughout the day, students are expected to take on a number of different roles: if a teacher is speaking to the whole class, maybe the student will act as a listener, but in the lunchroom the student may be expected to be a more active participant.
Roles help us know what to expect and what is expected of us. Imagine if you walked into a new school and you didn’t know who the principal was, who the custodian was, or who the other teachers were!
Group work can be challenging because people don’t always verbalize the roles that they take on. You can support this in the classroom by making explicit all the jobs that need to be taken on: Who will organize the timeline? Who will find pictures? Who will do the research?
Help students build their self-awareness by modeling your own strengths and interests. Label what you see as their strengths, too, but remember to include students in the process of role selection. Encourage students to try roles that they may not be drawn to since this can always lead to a new interest or strength.
Classroom jobs can be a great way to have students take on explicitly defined roles. These jobs can be used strategically (e.g. students who like to move around can get a job of “delivery person” and students who like numbers can be “calendar helper”), but they are also a great way of modeling how to use strengths to influence roles.
In older grades, jobs can take students outside of the classroom; maybe they intern for a coach, or go out into the community to learn while helping others. Recognizing that we all play various roles depending on the context is a useful lesson for everyone, but can be particularly powerful for autistic students, for whom “context” sometimes needs to be highlighted externally.
Whenever possible, allow students to incorporate their interests into activities. Have a student who loves dinosaurs? Let them write dinosaur math problems in math class, and allow them to write a story about a dinosaur (perhaps from a dinosaur’s perspective) in a creative writing ELA unit. Sharing interests are the foundation for friendships, and the more students are encouraged to recognize their own strengths and interests, the more likely they may be to recognize connections between themselves and others. Choices are an excellent way of providing for Multiple Means of Engagement, a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guideline. The goal of UDL is to give “all individuals equal opportunities to learn,” and the engagement guidelines, in particularly, help provide students with a sense of belonging.
By middle and high school, students can use this insight to form clubs based on their interests and to inform the courses they choose. Eventually, this practice of self-reflection can help them transition into adulthood and a career that not only helps them apply their skills and strategies, but which they also find fulfilling.