Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How To Make Group Work Easier For Autistic Kids

by Bec Oakley

originally posted on Snagglebox.com

Imagine this...
It’s your first week at a new job and you’re sitting in a meeting with a bunch of coworkers you barely know. Everyone is talking at once and you can’t make sense of any of it. They’re leaning out of their chairs, discussing something in the middle of the table that you can’t see, and the meeting room is small - bodies are pressed uncomfortably close to yours and the noise in the room is deafening. Your boss walks past and shouts “Join in!” How? You have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, or who to ask. Suddenly someone says “Let’s get to work” and the group disbands, leaving you to feel overwhelmed and confused about what just happened.

This is how classroom group work can feel for a lot of autistic kids.

Working in a team can be really hard work - it’s emotionally, physically and mentally draining for some, downright scary for others. And the effects of this stress and exhaustion can last much longer than one lesson, it can impact learning for the rest of the day or even all week. For some kids who find group work daunting, even the mere possibility that they’ll have to do it at some point can increase their anxiety about being at school.

The stress of group work is usually attributed to “not wanting to interact”, but this is just a small part of why this kind of classroom activity can be particularly challenging or unappealing for these kids. So let’s look at some of the other reasons.



Group work is very rarely announced in advance, and suddenly hearing the dreaded words “Find a partner” can trigger anxiety or panic before the task has even begun. It’s difficult to predict ahead of time who will be in your group, and team mates usually change with every activity. The lack of control over the task or its outcome can be incredibly stressful for kids who need routine, or for those who have set high standards of perfection for their own work.


Moving in and out of teams requires shifts in attention, environment and sensory input which can be uncomfortable, unsettling or demanding for some kids. They have to disengage from what they’re doing and adjust to a flood of new information, and they might find themselves without the cues and props they usually use to cope (the defined space of their desk that shows them where they should sit, the noise buffering effect of the carpet beneath their chair).

Group selection

Forming your own group is a complex task which can be really intimidating for a lot of kids.
First you have to find the people you know, which can be tricky with everyone moving around the room (especially for kids who have trouble recognizing others). Once you’ve identified potential partners you have to act quickly, approaching them in the right way with the right words... and a hell of a lot of confidence that you’re not going to be rejected. This places huge demands on language skills, social understanding and executive functions like planning and attention, which are all areas that can be challenging for autistic kids.

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If you would like more information about autism, please contact Family Matters at 866-436-7842.

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