Teaching math, spelling–and kindness?

Claire McCarthy, MD

I was really nervous when my daughter invited the autistic boy in her fourth grade class to her birthday party.

I was happy she wanted to include him, don’t get me wrong. It was just that, well, anyone who has been to Roller World in Saugus will understand. It’s a really overwhelming place. It’s usually crowded (finding the people you came with can be tough), and between the music and the crowd noise it can be hard to hear the person next to you. It’s dimly lit, with a distracting and disorienting disco ball light thing over the big rink. And when you are on the big rink, you have to move in the right direction and at the right speed, without zigzagging, or you can get knocked over. Yep, perfect place for an autistic kid.

I shouldn’t have worried.  The kids had it covered.

Even though it was eleven years ago, I remember it as if it were yesterday—because it was one of the most amazing and inspiring things I’ve ever seen. Michaela and her classmates made sure he was never left alone, taking turns easily and naturally without adult intervention. They brought him to the big rink, holding his hand, and took him back to the practice rink when he needed a break. They did things he wanted to do, like skating repetitively back and forth on the practice rink—and also incorporated him into games they were playing.  All of them had a wonderful time.

When I asked Michaela about her memories of this boy, she said, simply, “We liked him.”

I know that it doesn’t always work out this way. I don’t know whether it was the particular kids involved, something the teachers or principal did, something about the school climate, or something else entirely. But whatever it was, it worked. That boy was truly part of that class. He didn’t interact the way other kids did, but there was lots of interaction; it was as if he and his classmates found an in-between language.

So I wasn’t surprised when I read a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry that showed that when it comes to teaching kids with autism social skills, peers are key.

Social skills are a real weakness for kids with autism—and having those skills can make all the difference when it comes to making and keeping friends. Traditionally, teaching kids with autism things like social etiquette, how to take turns in a conversation, or how to invite a child to play happens in a classroom or clinical setting, apart from other kids. In this study, researchers chose three “normal” peers from the class of the child with autism who were considered leaders. They taught these peers about autism and how to interact with children who have it.

It made a real difference. The autistic kids whose peers had been trained were much more likely to get incorporated into the classroom community, more likely to have kids ask them to play, far less likely to end up alone at recess. It wasn’t just the trained peers who reached out—other peers, following their example, did too (in the study, it turned out to be “cool” to help). And it wasn’t just that the peers were being nicer; the kids with autism, perhaps because they were getting more practice, got better at social skills.

I love this idea, so much. I hope they start doing it at schools everywhere. I love it because anything that gives isolated kids a better chance to make friends and be part of a community is wonderful. But mostly I love it because in this model we teach kids empathy. We teach them that they have the ability—and a real responsibility—to help others.

Just think of what we could do with this approach. Besides helping kids with autism, think about what it might do for kids with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or medical problems. There are so many ways their peers could help them. Maybe it really is just a matter of teaching them—and of creating a culture where helping is normal and expected. Maybe, if we started young, we could actually pull it off.

We could teach ABC’s and BBK’s—Being your Brother’s Keeper. It could change everything.

2 thoughts on “Teaching math, spelling–and kindness?

  1. You should really refer to the child as, the child with Autism; not the Autistic child. I like to refer to them as a person and not as a diagnosis.

  2. This is truly a great story. I work on an adolesent unit and it is amazing how kids so easily conform to different situations. I’m from Lynnfield and am very familiar with roller world in saugus I’ve been to many children’s birthday there and I think I too would have been a little apprehensive about the environment. Again a great story Thanks for sharing.

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