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OARacle Newsletter

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” – Margaret J. Whitley 

With the increased number of individuals diagnosed with autism comes a need for increased understanding and acceptance. In order to create that acceptance, more and more schools are including students with disabilities, including autism, in learning environments with their neurotypical peers. Peer education about autism is essential in such diverse learning environments and is an effective way to change non-autistic students’ attitudes, behaviors toward, and beliefs about their autistic peers. Peer education benefits all students as the classroom and school community discover the value each person brings and what they have in common.  

Increasing knowledge, building empathy, and creating opportunities for engagement between autistic and non-autistic students are the building blocks of peer education.

Increase Student Knowledge and Anchor to Tangible Resources

Knowledge is power. The more non-autistic students know about autism, the more understanding and accepting they will become. When non-autistic students know the challenges and behaviors their autistic peers may present in the classroom, they are more likely to understand the why behind some of the behaviors commonly experienced by their autistic peers. Identifying similarities between autistic students and non-autistic students is also essential to understanding.

This can often be difficult for children to understand, so for younger students, especially, anchoring their new knowledge to a tangible story or video is especially helpful. OAR’s Peer Education Grant provides its Kit for Kids and grants for projects that will increase autism awareness and acceptance. This resource contains a story flipbook about a young boy named Nick who differs from his peers, but those differences do not change the fact that he can still participate in activities like everyone else. He just may do it differently. The text celebrates the differences among all peers and promotes inclusive practices. The story is also available in video form on YouTube.

Additionally, PBS has multiple resources for educating others about autism that are kid-friendly and concrete for early learners. Anchoring a student’s new learning to something concrete aids retention and makes understanding differences among peers more realistic and relatable.

Build Empathy

With empathy, an individual can help another person through challenges they may face. Empathy is built in non-autistic students through learning to understand autistic peers and by spending time with them in the classroom. For example, some autistic students may experience sensory overload or be overwhelmed with unexpected change. Teachers can proactively establish patterns and habits that increase participation in daily classroom activities. Using picture schedules provides structure and makes the day more concrete.  

Non-autistic peers in the classroom will also benefit from a clearly defined routine, yet may not understand the reasons behind frequent reminders when the day does not follow the typical schedule, a picture schedule, and the repetitive structure craved by many with autism. Understanding the autistic student’s feelings and needs helps their peers appreciate the support that helps their autistic peers succeed.  

Teachers can build empathy in students by engaging them in thought and conversation around diverse circumstances. A teacher could read a short story or a scenario highlighting someone with diverse needs, someone who is a nonspeaker, for example. The class can brainstorm ways this student would feel when they need to communicate their needs and wants:  

  • How would this student tell us they are hungry or not feeling well?  
  • How would we know when they are frustrated or scared?  
  • How would we know when they just need a friend to play with?  
  • How would this student feel, and how can speaking students be kind in such situations?  

During these conversations, teachers have the opportunity to model empathy through their words and actions as well. Conversations such as these are important in expanding students’ thoughts and indirect experiences, preparing them for the diverse world. 

To further expand this activity, teachers can use appropriate role-play, creating anchor charts to celebrate ways students are similar to their autistic peers and identify the ways they are different. Teachers can also have students make informational products such as brochures about autism or slide shows to dive deeper into the students’ understanding. 

Create Opportunities for Engagement

Increased peer engagement in structured and unstructured activities allows students to learn from each other. These are some examples. 

Students can collaborate on a project together. The teacher can help the diverse student group identify each team member’s strengths and ensure that each team member has a part. For example, if the students are comprehensively explaining the water cycle, some students may be comfortable writing the explanation of each part of the cycle based on their literary strength. Others may have strengths in drawing or creating a 3D model. The intuitive teacher will know this about her students and can create success for each diverse learner by guiding groups appropriately. A wonderful resource for teachers is the video, Because of Oliver. This powerful video leaves teachers emotionally connected to Oliver and his teachers. His team of educators was committed to restructuring and making instructional adaptations for all students leading to engagement with their peers and the lesson content.

Recreational activities, such as play on the playground or structured sports activities, can help foster friendships. Structured activities have clearly defined parameters and the teacher can orchestrate opportunities to teach them. Examples include: 

  • Taking turns: Board games, puzzles/blocks, and swings 
  • Sharing: Blocks, coloring/drawing, and ball games 
  • Engaging in appropriate play: Choose activities that are great independently but also with a group of students, such as hula hoop, jump rope, sidewalk chalk drawing, and exploring a place, such as the playground or a nature walk.  

Club Unify, part of Project Unify with Special Olympics, provides students with disabilities the opportunity to engage with their non-disabled peers in sports, leadership opportunities, and whole-school engagement. Opportunities such as Club Unify promote peer education as students engage with one another around a common goal and have fun while doing it.  

As classrooms become more inclusive, purposefully planning ways to engage diverse learners is vital. When peers can learn about one another, they build tolerance and acceptance. Accepting differences and similarities develops relationships. Students develop care for one another and have no choice but to continue to spark change and continued acceptance. 

Amanda Rather is the assistant director of special education in the tenth-largest district in Arkansas. After serving as a principal and assistant superintendent in a small district, she finds passion in solving ways to increase inclusive practices, all while securing appropriate support for teachers to promote success for all. She is a board-certified inclusion education specialist with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Harding University and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Central Arkansas. She is a doctoral candidate at Southern Arkansas University, focusing her dissertation on inclusive practices in rural and diverse communities.