Peer awareness encourages pupils to recognise that everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. It may involve talks to the whole school or year groups through assemblies or special events as part of a whole school’s planned learning around Diversity and Equality.
These sessions can help challenge discrimination, support a culture of inclusion and participation and help identify issues around equality and fairness. They will contribute to the Wellbeing curriculum outcomes. This does not mean identifying any individual pupil but rather advocates an ethos where pupils are treated equally but individually.
“the other children will need their own programs. They will need to know how to respond to behaviours that appear unfriendly and how to encourage abilities that facilitate friendships… Without guidance and support from the teacher, the reaction can be rejection and ridicule rather than acceptance and inclusion in their activities” Tony Attwood (2007)
However it is unlikely that this approach alone will provide the opportunities needed to explore or challenge issues, or develop understanding.of how to tackle these. This is more likely when learning is embedded in classroom planning and learning as part of Personal and Social Development (PSD), Citizenship or within cross curricular activities.
It is not necessary to identify individuals during these sessions but to consider:
- the skills and talents of people who think in a different way
- social communication difficulties how these are likely to present
- what might be best ways to help and support.
Even when part of the school curriculum, parents of pupils with autism should be made aware of the content of these lessons and when they will take place. They may lead to questions from their son or daughter, or may open the way for further discussion about a diagnosis.
Learning about autism may be part of a package to support a buddy or mentoring scheme in the school. Young people, usually Senior pupils will require an enhanced level of awareness of the interests and strengths as well as support issues and strategies for the pupils they are working with, whatever the level of difficulty. They will themselves need ongoing access to support to sustain and develop this role. A buddy can provide support when young people become anxious, or benefit from someone at hand to explain or remind them of what to do, for example at break times or participation in games. Buddies might help run lunch time or after school clubs. A mentor might provide support in a curriculum area which is their strength.
A few young people with autism may decide they would like their class or year group to know about their diagnosis, and develop a presentation with parents or support staff which is delivered by themselves, by staff or parents. In this case, it is best to decide beforehand with the pupil concerned and their parents whether they would like to be present during the presentation or not.
Sometimes because of ongoing concerns regarding a pupil’s wellbeing or interactions (or lack of) with peers parents or professionals suggest seting up a Circle of Friends
Circle of Friends
It is important that parents of all pupils understand clearly how their child will be involved and what the aims of Circle of Friends are. Parents need to inform the school whether their child is aware of their diagnosis and whether they are willing for the class group to be informed of their child’s diagnosis. However, it is not essential for others to know of the pupil's diagnosis for it to run effectively. Circle of Friends can still be used even though the child may be unaware of their diagnosis. The peer group will be focusing on the child's difficulties and behaviour, and not on the difficulties that children with an autism are expected to have.
Raising peer awareness can have many benefits for everyone involved. It is a skilled area, and if a pupil is being identified parental consent must be obtained first. It is also important to consult the pupil concerned.
Discussing the diagnosis or difficulties of a pupil with peers is not always in a pupil’s best interests and a very careful assessment has to be made by all concerned and decisions made about who is the most skilled to hold these discussions. This strategy has sometimes led to increased bullying.
- Inform pupils about aspects which might be most problematic
Information around Communication, social interaction, preference for routines, sensory issues should be included in awareness training
- Identify well known, successful people with autism
Awareness of the positive outcomes for people with autism encourages pupils to identify strengths and talents
- Keep open communication with parents
Young people will have different perspectives on peer awareness lessons which can have more of an impact at home than in school. Sessions might also raise questions which parents can be prepared for
- Use activities and resources which are useful to everyone
Try to develop and show how we all benefit from some of the approaches which help individuals with autism eg what visuals help us all in school and the community? Try 20 seconds ‘thinking time’ Does it lessen anxiety, provide more reasoned answers? Identify some common idioms, phrases or sarcasm which could confuse more literal thinkers – ‘it’s noisy in here’, I’d like an answer before lunchtime’ Provide examples of situations or communications and discuss what the issues are and what would be expected outcome eg why do you smile or respond when someone greets you? Would a friend ask you to take the blame for something they did? What does it mean if someone gets a ‘hat trick’ at football – what would you say to them?
- Use films, tv or video clips to give perspectives of young people with autism
- Provide ongoing support for buddies or mentors
They will need to have a time to talk about how their time is allocated, the level of support they are giving and concerns or questions about their buddy. There should be a member of staff they can contact.
- Buddies should be aware of confidentiality issues
Some pupils might inadvertently or deliberately pass on personal information about themselves or others. Buddies should know that this information should not be passed on. However they should be informed of the kind of information which is relevant to child protection issues.
- Buddies or mentors should be aware of potential risks and what to report to staff
If young people are supporting an individual pupil they should be given do’s and don’ts around potential risks and compromising situations (never to be on their own) and how to avoid these. They should also be informed about what information is important to pass on to staff
- Peer awareness should be developed across the school
Lessons should be incorporated into planning every school session, and should build on knowledge through time. It is unlikely the same presentation to the same group every year will have much impact. Secondary schools should identify what information and resources have been used in Primary.
- Supporting Diversity, Equality and Wellbeing is the responsibility of all staff
There will be issues within every age, developmental stage and curriculum area.