Building Peer Support and Friendships for Autistic Students in General Education Classes

 Building Peer Support and Friendships for Autistic Students in General Education Classes

Over the past 15 years, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have spent increasing amounts of time in general education classrooms. In their paper, “Efficacy of Peer Support Interventions in General Education Classrooms for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” authors Erik W. Carter et al. note that between 2001-2012, students with ASD “who spent more than 40% of their school day in general education classrooms increased from 39.6% to 57.6%” (207). Although ASD students are exposed to general ed content alongside their school peers, the general ed environment is socially challenging. Previous studies have documented that students with ASD “have few peer interactions in general education classrooms, spend limited time in close proximity to classmates, and infrequently participate in collaborative work with peers” (207). This relative isolation can be attributed to both the students’ social challenges, as well as instructional formats that limit the number of opportunities ASD students (and students in general) have to interact with peers (208).

For their study, Carter et al. investigated the effectiveness of peer support arrangements for ASD students in general education classrooms. The authors describe peer support as “one or more students without developmental disabilities providing social and/or academic support to a classmate with a disability in a general education classroom” (208). The ASD students of interest in this study were high-functioning students who did not have additional special education adult support in the classroom, but who had documented social-challenges.

The authors worked with 4 high school ASD students across three different states. 13 students from the same general ed classes as the ASD students volunteered to participate as peer support partners (210). These 13 students attended a 45-60 minute training session before starting their peer support. The training addressed, among other things, the general needs of the ASD students and the goals of increasing the number of peer interactions the ASD students had in class each day. The training also offered strategies for peer support partners and guidelines about respect and confidentiality and about when to seek assistance (211).

“Examples of social supports could include conversing with the focus student about upcoming school and other activities when there is no instruction, modeling appropriate social skills, making introductions to other classmates, encouraging the focus student to talk with classmates, reinforcing social attempts, and giving advice” (211).

Carter et al. conducted at least five baseline observations of the ASD students before peer support began. At the end of the the Spring semester, the peer support partners and the ASD students were asked to complete approximately 20 questions about their experiences with the arrangement (213). To measure changes in the ASD students’ levels of peer interactions, the researchers also conducted 20 minute observations in each of the 4 general education classes during the semester (212).

The Findings:

  • Social interactions during general ed classes with peer support arrangements increased for all four students (213).
  • “[S]ocial interactions primarily took place with peer partners rather than with other classmates who had no received training. Specifically, 83.2% of interactions from the focus student were to peer partners, and 84.2% of all interactions to the focus student came from peer partners” (215).
  • It was observed that peer support partners:
    • socialized with ASD students during transition and free time in class, including before and after class
    • helped ASD students with projects
    • offered positive encouragement
    • prompted hand raising for ASD students
    • invited ASD students to join small-group activities
    • worked with ASD students on warm-ups
    • reminded ASD students to stay focused in class
    • encouraged ASD students to participate
    • modeled positive behavior (219-220)
  • Support peers reported that they enjoyed the experience and wanted to be part of future interventions (216).
  • Support peers believed that the ASD students benefitted socially from having peer supports in class (216).

ASD students reported that they enjoyed being part of a group, felt comfortable with the peer support arrangements, and “considered their peer partners to be friends” (216).

  • General ed teachers reported that the support arrangement was not disruptive to the class and was a good way to support ASD students (216).
  • Academic engagement increased for two of the ASD students, and maintained for one student. The authors remark that the decrease in the fourth ASD student’s academic engagement appeared to be due to a lack of instruction in the classroom (218).
  • “[P]eer support arrangements appear to address prevailing opportunity barriers by creating teacher-sanctioned, interdependent interaction opportunities within an instructional setting” (216).
  • General ed classmates appear to be willing to become peer supports for ASD students (218).

“Peer partners general found it easy to get their own work done, felt confident in their roles, would recommend this role to other peers, and considered their partner to have become a friend” (218).

Carter et al. conclude their paper with a reminder that that peer support arrangements should be designed to meet the individual needs of ASD students in class. They note that it is also important for the ASD student to be included in the decision to receive peer support, especially given that some ASD students may not have disclosed their autism diagnosis to their general ed peers. That said, the authors make it clear that both the ASD students and their peer support partners benefitted from the arrangement.

Paper Title:  Efficacy of Peer Support Interventions in General Education Classrooms for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Paper Authors: (a) Erik W. Carter, (a) Jenny R. Gustafson, (b) Melissa A. Sreckovic, (b) Jessica R. Dykstra Steinbrenner, (c) Nigel P. Pierce, (d) Aimee Bord, (d) Aaron Stabel, (d) Sally Rogers, (a) Alicia Czerw, and (a) Teagan Mullins

(a) Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN   (b) The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill   (c) North Carolina Central University, Durham   (d) University of California, Davis

Full Paper Link:

Published: Remedial and Special Education, Volume 38, No. 4, 2017, Pages 207-221