Individuals on the autism spectrum, by definition, have problems with communication, difficulty with social interaction, and repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. These characteristics may make it hard for others to accept them.
Typical peers are often confused when children and youth with autism spectrum differences (ASD) exhibit unusual behaviors. They may be unsure of how they should respond. This confusion can lead to rejection, making it difficult for the individual with ASD to practice the appropriate behaviors involved in social interaction.
Sunday school teachers, youth leaders and other adults have a vital role to play in promoting understanding and acceptance of such children in communities of faith.
Promote social inclusion
Individuals with ASD often become loners after repeated experiences of rejection, when their atypical efforts to make friends have been misunderstood. Adults in the congregation can have a positive influence on the way peers respond by modeling helpful ways to respond to a child or youth with ASD. When awkward or inappropriate behaviors arise:
- Teach rather than lecture or punish. It is usually most helpful to assume the child does not know what she did wrong. Instead, the teacher should explain (privately, if possible) why the child’s behavior did not fit the situation, and then teach a more appropriate behavior.
- Share information about the disability. Children are more accepting if they have an understanding of the disability and are aware of the similarities and differences between them and their peers with disabilities. Accurate information is a powerful tool that can enable the peers of children with ASD to practice acceptance and understanding.
- Train a peer buddy. The buddy is a typical peer who volunteers to offer extra support, encouragement, and role modeling.
- Give children with ASD opportunities to show their unique abilities to their peers.
One recommended approach for educating a peer buddy or a group of peers includes these steps:
- Begin by inviting peers to list positive traits or interests of the child so that they can find aspects of the child they may identify with.
- When the child is not present, invite others to name things that make interaction with the child confusing or frustrating.
- Explain the main characteristics of ASD and how they affect the social interaction of anyone who lives with ASD.
- Give specific suggestions for positive interaction with the child who has ASD.
- Help the child’s peers understand the connection between particular unusual behaviors they have seen and the characteristics of ASD.
Suggest positive interaction approaches
It is important for young people to know how to be a friend to someone with ASD. Teachers can suggest these strategies for fostering connection and friendship to typical children and youth:
- Encourage and explain to your friend with ASD how he can join your activities since he might be unsure of how to join in on her own.
- Make it very clear when you are trying to be friendly. Use words in addition to body language, because facial expressions and gestures may be hard for your friend to notice or understand.
- Explain what is going on whenever there are misunderstandings.
- Engage your friend in conversation by asking questions.
- Be patient, since your friend with ASD may have difficulty understanding the unwritten rules about a particular situation.
When teachers help children and youth accept their peers with ASD, they are helping all their students understand God’s design for creation. God’s design is one of diversity. “In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:5). Christ desires for us to love and accept one another’s differences because they are all a vital part of his plan.