Teaching Peers About Autism
December 02, 2016
OAR developed the Kit for Kids program to help teach elementary and middle school students to better understand and learn to accept their peers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The kit consists of a lesson plan, peer education booklet, classroom poster, and how-to tips for parents and teachers.
We sat down with Dr. Jonathan Campbell to ask him about his findings and how they may help educators and parents in their efforts to increase awareness of autism and acceptance of those who have it among their classmates at school.
A: There are various ways to improve social acceptance, such as enlisting the help of peers to serve as “buddies” (e.g., help a student with autism navigate social interactions during recess or lunch), tutors, and interventionists themselves (e.g., help a student with autism play appropriately). Within this group of strategies, our work has focused on the impact of teaching peers about autism. We look at peer education through the lens of persuasive communication. Here, the goal is to change attitudes, which requires consideration of “who says what, how, to whom, and with what effect.” From this viewpoint, knowledge gain and attitude change are predictive of behavior change.
In my OCALICON presentation, I cited the example of Dr. Temple Grandin’s early school experiences and the proactive role her mother took. According to Dr. Grandin, her mother “discussed my problems extensively with the teachers. On the first day of school I was kept home so that the teachers could explain to the other children that I was different.”
In a 2000 article in Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, two adults with autism note that peer understanding of autism can make a difference. “In both grade school and junior high school, my mom came to school at the beginning of each year and talked to both the students and teachers about autism and about me. I think that helped everyone understand me better,” noted one adult with autism. The other commented on disclosure, “It helps when people who are going to be in class or in a work situation with me know the details of my disability and what to expect from me. People who know the details about my autism are usually more comfortable dealing with me.”
From the perspective of persuasive communication, we’ve found that students from different grades respond differently depending on who presents information about autism. Students in third grade were more responsive to a parent while students in fifth grade were more responsive to an outside professional (i.e., a “doctor”). Having parents or other professionals talk to students is a good step, but persuasive communication may be even more persuasive when a familiar peer (or peers) talks to classmates about students with autism. That’s something that OAR had in mind when it developed the Kit for Kids. The narrator of the story told in “What’s Up With Nick?” is a girl who goes to school with Nick. Delivery of the lesson is flexible and may be presented by students to students.
A: Clearly, elementary school students will need support from parents or teachers or both. If a peer delivers the Kit for Kids lesson, we recommend coordinating with the classroom teacher to identify a thoughtful student who is well liked by the class. We also recommend that the peer review and rehearse the presentation. Of course, if the lesson is presented on behalf of a student with autism, this needs to be coordinated with the student and their caregivers, while respecting the student’s privacy and adhering to a level of disclosure that the student is comfortable with.
OAR has also developed supplemental materials, such as a short video and workbooks for younger students, that may be used with the Kit for Kids lesson.
A: We conducted two studies that add to what we know about the Kit for Kids program. Our first study was a qualitative study with students in fifth and eighth grades—three fifth-grade classrooms and two eighth-grade classrooms. Members of my research team delivered the Kit for Kids lesson, then returned one week later to interview students about their opinions of the lesson. We interviewed 16 students—eight eighth graders and eight fifth graders. Ten of them were girls and six were boys.
We found that students rated the program favorably and, more important, were able to recall information about behavioral symptoms and sensory sensitivities one week after the Kit for Kids presentation. They also connected the information with not only what happens in the classroom but also what takes place outside of the classroom. One particularly positive finding was that students recalled the need to better understand students with ASD so that they could modify their own behavior in order to help students with ASD be included in the classroom. The students we interviewed also recommended supplementing the presentation with guest speakers, video examples, and hands-on activities to increase their understanding of autism.
Our second study consisted of randomly assigning classrooms to receive the Kit for Kids lesson or not. We then asked the students about their knowledge of autism and their attitudes towards an unfamiliar student with autism. We found that the lesson increased knowledge, attitudes, and students’ beliefs that they could support a student with autism in their classroom.
Although our findings support the value of educating peers about autism, we know that education is only one component of supporting successful relationships between students with autism and their peers. Other peer programming, such as enlisting help from peers to serve as “buddies” or mentors, is needed to facilitate peer acceptance.
We are continuing our evaluation of the Kit for Kids materials and plan to evaluate their use with higher functioning students with autism. We are also interested in evaluating how classmates receive lessons delivered by their peers. With support and coaching, we believe that peers can effectively explain and describe autism and foster acceptance from classmates.
About the Author
Jonathan Campbell, Ph.D., is a professor of school psychology at the University of Kentucky and a member of OAR’s Scientific Council. In November, he led a session about his research project evaluating OAR’s Kit for Kids program at OCALICON in Columbus, Ohio.