Autism and the barriers to friendship
This is a situation that occurred a while ago and now both students are a couple of years into their new placements I feel it can be written and anonymity maintained. The names are made up, ‘Jack’ is what one of my current students calls me despite my trying to convince him it’s not my name. We shall call the other student Sean.
A bit of background. At the beginning of my career I worked in a residential special school. Students need a diagnosis of Autism or communication difficulties. A significant number of our students display challenging behaviour. We, therefore, have a high staff ratio. Friendship & working together is encouraged and expected but not pushed.
Building Friendships and Trust Between Autistic Pupils
There is a tendency to keep students who have historic issues separate with managed contact to build tolerance and rebuild trust and the relationship slowly. This is carefully managed to avoid causing anxiety. We have a mix of needs within the student population. It is the relationships between students who would make great friends that can be the most volatile.
In this example, we have two students who share a residential area but different classes. Both are able to verbalise and conduct a conversation but have difficulties with emotions and communicating their thoughts & feelings. Neither had any close friends as such but could be emphatic and caring towards others especially the students who require greater staff support. Jack was new to the school, it was his first residential placement, and he was very sensitive to other pupils’ behaviours reacting to and mimicking them at times.
Sean had been at the school since he was 11, he had formed good bonds with certain staff but had become increasingly frustrated by the nature or life at school as he saw himself as more adult and independent than his peers. If you have worked in specialist provisions I’m sure you can relate to this.
After witnessing Sean’s behaviour Jack began saying he was bad and became wary of him but in a way tried to provoke behaviours. Sean would chase and try halfheartedly to confront Jack knowing the staff would intervene.
Making a Plan to Facilitate Friendship
One day Sean said he would like to be friends with Jack. Great! As Jack was in my class I discussed with a teaching assistant from Sean’s class how we could get them together for a positive experience. It was decided that Sean would go and buy the ingredients to make lunch for Jack. So Sean came to my class to ask what Jack wanted for lunch. A great discussion followed, both students were respectful and Sean changed his voice and manner of speech, quieter, non-confrontational.
As lunchtime approached I took student Jack to the kitchen, hands were shaken and cooking began. Sean kept initiating the discussion by asking questions about Jack’s interests. Jack answered, without eye contact but standing near. Negotiations about sauce took place and two separate pans were found as a compromise suggested by staff.
The lunch was eaten and the staff told students how proud they were. Each student expressed enjoyment, hands were shaken and the students went back to class. Following this relationships improved and no incidents between them occurred, A success and great to see students interacting appropriately.
Here is an article with some thoughts about friendship and ASD