Placing an autistic student into a general education classroom often creates an enigma. Such an effect occurs because unfamiliarity breeds mystery. Classmates may feel uncertain how to react to different behaviors. Consequently peer interaction suffers. In the Pelican State the Louisiana Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders (LASARD) Project works to change the above through education and training.

Recently I enjoyed the opportunity to interview LASARD Project coordinator Julie D. Riley. Riley shared many great insights with me, some which I incorporated in my article for The Mobility Resource, “Why Peer Interaction Proves Crucial to Students with Autism.” Here at Think Inclusive I’ll share two specific strategies Riley mentioned to triumphantly improve an autistic student’s peer interactions.

Prior to delving into Riley’s strategies, her great passion for working with the autistic community seems worth acknowledging.  Her enthusiasm remained evident while she talked about her first experience working with the demographic.

“I just fell in love with working with those students. I loved the students and I really found meaning in changing some of the behaviors and really helping develop communication. Really working with the families and seeing what changes we were making at the program were carrying over in school. It was just a really good experience.”

By implementing the following two strategies, the enigma aspect to placing students with autism in general education classrooms can lessen and in an ideal world completely disappear.

Revisiting Situations

Asked if she ever experienced hesitation from teachers or students regarding the training LASARD Project offers, Riley explained no because schools must apply for the organization’s services. Thus the urge to establish an inclusive atmosphere already exists.

Yet Riley did go on to say, “I’ve had to kind of bring that (social interaction) to the attention of some who never really thought that students with autism you know should be, not that they shouldn’t be in the same settings but it’s just ‘Well he doesn’t like the smell of the cafeteria so we don’t go in there.’ Or ‘It’s too busy on the playground so we just stay in the classroom.’”

Riley recommends after a few years to revisit the situation. “When kind of probed a little bit more they haven’t tried it in a couple years. Maybe in kindergarten he didn’t like the smell of the cafeteria so no one has ever taken him back there.” You may learn by revisiting the situation a few years later that the student can handle said scenario better. That then creates increased opportunities for interaction.

Common Interests

An essential element to healthy peer interaction between autistic students and their classmates entails eliminating the unknown, Riley noted. “Students that I have seen that do have difficulty accepting students with disabilities generally it’s a lack of exposure. Or, no adults ever helped them to be aware of what’s going on with the other student or giving them some pathways to connect to the students with disabilities.”

Common interests can act as one pathway to connect. “We’re working with a student right now who is into video games. That’s huge right, for a lot of young kids? So we’re trying to build not a club necessarily but that’s how we are starting the interaction. If they can play a video game together, then we can build out from that. So trying to find a common interest is important.”

Clubs and extra-curricular activities prove a fitting method for teenagers to discover each other’s common interests. She cited as an example, an autistic student who plays chess well could join his or her school’s chess club.

A Final Caution

The Internet’s potential to serve as a helpful resource stands undeniable. However, when looking for strategies to enhance somebody with autism’s life Riley gave this warning. “Make sure whatever you’re looking at online is something that’s supported by research because some things could be harmful.”

Visit www.hdc.lsuhsc.edu to learn more about LASARD Project.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks