“For most students the best part about coming to school is seeing and spending time with friends. For students who struggle to make social connections, however, going to school can be a lonely and frustrating experience” Kluth, P (2003)
Throughout our lives we are involved in and develop many different relationships with the multitude of people we are in contact with. Some of these will be fleeting and superficial, others may grow into lasting friendships or loving relationships. Many young people with autism want to have a ‘Boyfriend’ or ‘Girlfriend’ because they think it will bring automatic happiness or make them fit in with friends In all situations communication is a key to linking people.
In each relationship the appropriateness of our interactions can vary, and the rules change as we get older or the relationship evolves. For a relationship to succeed there needs to be flexibility, continual referencing and responding to the thoughts and actions of our partner/s. Practice for relationships usually happens as a child but children and young people with autism are unlikely to be picking up these skills in the same way or at the same time as their peers. They need to be taught in a more direct way.
Schools provide an ideal environment to develop skills especially through play activities and the variety of social situations and partners that pupils have to adapt to over time. The skills we develop to support relationships are the same qualities needed to be a good team member or employee, are the basis of a successful relationship with a partner, and are important for leading an independent life as an adult. Research suggests that positive relationships also support wellbeing, social and emotional development and self esteem.
Gutstein and Sheely (2002) describe two types of skills - Instrumental Skills and Relationship Skills, both of which are important but which have different purposes and require learning by different methods. In schools we are better at developing Social skills which are the Instrumental Skills – those for example which teach specific behaviours (waiting, looking or listening) or increase our ability to follow ‘rules’ in the lunch hall, behave appropriately in class, take exams. Relationship Skills to make or keep friends or develop empathy for others are more difficult to teach as they depend heavily on ‘in the moment’ decision making, transference of knowledge and awareness of consequences - not usually instinctive to individuals with autism
Since the social and emotional skills associated with relationships have such a significant impact on outcomes as adults, schools should recognise the importance of providing a social curriculum as well academic especially for pupils with autism. This is happening in many schools through more flexible planning to provide real life experiences through, for example Personal and Social Education, Outdoor Education or Interdisciplinary learning through projects or longer courses of study. These also often offer opportunities for personal achievement outwith the classroom.
For a few young people this flexibility will require a more focussed approach through a support group or even at times on an individual basis, perhaps using an approach such as Cognitive BehaviourTherapy (CBT). Some might advocate that such groups are most useful when all participants are on the spectrum;
"....students are able to talk about their experiences and be related to by others with the same experience. Our students do have empathy and feelings; they do not like always not knowing and not understanding how persons who are socially gifted think.... bringing in neuro typical peers would not allow the freedom to share their feelings as well as take the time to task analize concepts down to the infinitesimal parts that most typical folks can’t imagine we even have to discuss.
At the same time not all of our students can be grouped together...“ Garcia Winner M (2006)
For some young people at a very early stage of development more intensive individual support may be required to enhance awareness of others and develop joint attention. This may be through approaches such as Intensive Interaction, Floor time, Applied Behaviour Analysis or Arts Therapies. Individual, usually specially trained support is required for these approaches which are often initiated by parents. When appropriate, elements can be integrated into the curriculum.
- Play and games requiring joint attention – perhaps with an adult at first
- Friendship, at whatever level of understanding of the concept of friendships
- How to cope in difficult situations, when people are not friendly or bullying
- Positive and negative aspects of social networking
- Peer awareness – ‘a successful interaction requires constructive commitment from both parties” Attwood(2007)
- Use the young person’s preferred communication
- It is essential in schools that a pupil’s communication is used and supported to allow opportunities to participate and socialise. Some may use alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) such as PECS, Makaton or Signalong which require training or support form Speech and Language therapy.