It is not uncommon to see EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plans) targets linked to Social Skills, Play and Peer Interactions However these often present unique challenges to children with SEND and especially autistic children. These challenges go beyond “they don’t know how”. It is much more complex than that. When designing interventions to meet these targets we need to acknowledge the individual’s needs and sensitivities rather than just looking at the challenges they face using the deficit model.
The description of “own agendered”, enjoys solitary play, and will not interact with others have been applied to a significant number of children I have worked with. These phrases appear on EHCPs and other official, legally binding documents. I hope one day they do not. It is unfair and puts neurotypical values above the preferences of the child. Therefore when planning to meet these goals it is important to ask yourself two questions:
- What value are targets in these areas going to bring them?
- How will achieving this enhance their lives?
The answers to these questions will allow you to plan how to meet them in a way that respects that child’s communication and interaction preferences. Targets in any aspect of social interaction, group work or play need additional attention as it is these areas that seem to lean heavily towards changing aspects of the child’s character. I do not believe you can force or teach a child to become more sociable or to enjoy sharing playtime or space with a peer. A few years ago I wrote a post on autism and friendship based on one case study. Here I will share another example.
Peer Interactions and Autism: Case Study
They Don’t Like Noise
When working with autistic children/young people you see a lot of generalisations on paper. What you need to really know is the nuances and specific elements within these generalisation that actually relate to the child. I will share an example “Does not like noise”. I am sure you would have read this one. It is one of the most common pieces of information I have about a child. It is also one of the least helpful. Does not like – this is just meaningless. From listening to actually autistic speakers and talking to my pupils it is clear “like” is the wrong term to use. Noise can be physically painful, when a child processes aural stimuli differently they can never become desensitised to it.
Rarely is “noise” the issue it is specific noise, and this is key when planning peer interactions. The issue may be linked to tone, volume, pitch, duration, expectedness. So a child that doesn’t like noise should never be paired with a pupil that communicates through loud vocalisations, right?
Triggers, actions and reactions
In my experience this is not the case. The key factor when developing peer interactions is not forcing that interaction but carefully observing the natural interactions and curiosity of one child in another. This is how this case study starts. The peer interactions described here should not have been positive. On paper one child’s “triggers” were the regular actions of the other child. Both were generally speaking very adult orientated in their previous interactions (This may well be a discussion for a future post. Had high levels of staff support from young lead to less chance to see the value in interacting with peers. Or was it just their preferences?)
I taught a small class of KS4 (14-16 year olds) who all had a diagnosis of autism. Out of the young people two had the closest bond I have seen in my career. One, let’s call him William, communicated using PECS, could display highly physical behaviours when frustrated. He would express joy, excitement or annoyance using high pitched, very loud vocalisations. The other communicated verbally, could be highly anxious and due to negative incidents in the past, and was highly anxious around other young people, Harry.
The start of positive interactions
William would often grab or scratch staff if asked to do something or when told “No”. He never initiated interactions with peers before Harry started in my class. Initially when William vocalised Harry would shout at him, go right up to his face and tell him to stop, we used ear defenders, a screen opposite sides of the classroom. Staff had been hurt preventing William from physically responding to Harry’s actions.
Until William asked to watch a specific video on youtube, Harry loved it. They would rewind and rewatch the same section, laugh and mimic noises from the video. William would bring in videos (DVD/VHS) from home that they would look at (the case not watch the video) together. Harry would initiate and model PECS exchanges. William would make Harry recite lines from films by writing them out, this improved his writing throughout the year as the requests got more complex.
Things wouldn’t always go to plan. If either young person was upset by other things, traffic in the morning, fire alarms etc. Then staff would have to engineer jobs around the school to separate them as their tolerances for the others actions would drop dramatically. To summarise, it was finding a joint interest that allowed each young person to be relaxed enough to let the other in that supported this. Staff had to dynamically manage risk by judging each persons mood. In the end whilst many of the interactions were not specifically education linked they were fantastic for their social emotional development.
Why do some children find social skills, play and peer interactions a challenge?
Social interactions or even observing interactions as part of a group requires the child to process a huge amount of stimuli. This can quickly become overwhelming. This in turn can lead to the child avoiding interactions or places due to negative experiences. This is a short list of some of the possible elements of an interaction a child would have to process
- Identifying the speaker.
- Switching attention when the speaker changes, often unexpectedly and mid sentance (interruptions).
- Attuning to the specific words used by speakers using different tones of voice.
- Interpreting nonverbal communication.
- Trying to identify idiosyncrasies, accents, slang etc
- Follow the social expectations within the context i.e formal discussion, Q&A or chit chat between friends.
- Deciding how and when to respond.
All of this needs processing which some people can do without thought or stress. If you are having to mentally attune to each element, interpret and process it consciously you will become stressed. It is inevitable. This can lead to high levels of anxiety when a child knows that these expectations will soon be placed on them. This anxiety alone can compromise the ability to process the conversations and interactions. That is why it is essential that when developing these skills each child is in a state of readiness to learn.
Great Strategies to Develop Peer-Interaction
- AAC Games – Great or overcoming communication differences.
- Snack time – Brilliant for responsibility and highly motivating interactions.
- Storytelling – Sharing space and positive experiences through sensory stories.
- Jobs and responsibility – Give young people a meaningful activity that they need to work together to achieve.
- Pairing similar interests – even if this is not technically academic it is your way to bring their worlds together.
- Reduced staff support/Prompting – As adults, even well meaning support can hinder genuine relationships between peers.
- Provide time for young people to feel comfortable around each other.