Changing Up the Approach to Social Groups
At a Glance
In this post, we'll be covering a specific type of social group that can provide a supportive space for autistic students to navigate social interaction and situations on their own terms.
Peer Networks are part of a larger evidence-based practice called Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention (PMII), meant to inform and educate peers on communication needs and differences.
Share our type of Peer Network curriculum called Peer Connections, where we outline the development and facilitation of groups that give space to autistic students to connect over interests and pursue their own social goals.
For this week’s blog post we are taking a closer look at our philosophy and framing around a specific type of social group, that really isn’t your typical social group. We are doing so in part to highlight our Social Skills Group Curriculum, which offers comprehensive guidelines for professionals who want to create and guide a Peer Connections group from its inception.
Our other goals with this post are to share more information about why Peer Connections groups can be such a valuable resource and why we choose to frame the content and approach of our Social Skills Group Curriculum the way that we do.
The bottom line is that social groups can make a real difference in overall social engagement for autistic students, but we also need to ensure that our school-organized social groups are accepting of differences in modes of communication.
With the right framing, social groups can be a wonderful safe space for autistic students to navigate the complexities of social interaction and situations on their own terms.
What is a Peer Connections social group?
Peer Connections is a type of social skills group of 4-6 students comprised of two equally sized groups.
One group of 2-3 students with social support needs and goals, potentially as part of an IEP goal, is intended to receive support from this group.
Another group of 2-3 peer partners are identified by the group facilitator as a good match to support the needs and goals of the target students.
This whole group engages in open ended, 20-30 minute meetings that are largely self-directed but also supported by the group facilitator when needed.
How is it beneficial to autistic students?
While we do not want to downplay the value of social groups in meeting social skill-oriented IEP goals, there are numerous additional benefits to students who have greater support needs around socializing.
The study we linked to in the first paragraphs showed a number of benefits to autistic students who participate in social groups, including more and lengthier interactions with peers, a greater number of friendships, and greater participation in school activities.
AGU’s guidelines for a Peer Connections social group also prioritizes maintaining as much autonomy as possible for students while also providing necessary supports, which we will get into further in the next couple of sections.
What is in the AGU Social Skills Group Curriculum?
AGU’s Social Group Curriculum includes comprehensive instructions on creating and running a Peer Connections social group from start to finish, including guidance, permission forms, calendars, recruiting advice with sample flyers, session planners, student information forms, sample schedules of varying lengths, ways to evaluate progress, advice on customization, a step-by-step checklist for putting the group together, and potential next steps.
What sets AGU’s curriculum apart?
One of the most crucial components of AGU’s curriculum is the way it approaches the concept of building social skills within a social group. Many social skill-oriented activities focus on perceived skill deficits on the part of an autistic student and “correcting” them to be more in line with allistic social norms - a practice we really want to get away from!
At AGU we believe that the best form of practicing social skills is offering students the opportunity to navigate social situations in ways that feel right to them and adjust based on how their needs, wants, and perception of a given situation evolve.
While autistic students will often hear that communication is a two-way street and have the burden of adjusting mostly placed on them, the purpose of this group is to consciously place more of that work in the hands of allistic peer partners.
To this end, one major component of the ways this particular curriculum works is that it encourages facilitator check-ins with peer partners to discuss any differences in communication style that the peer partner may not completely understand.
Rather than targeting a communication difference that falls outside allistic social norms to be changed, we can discuss the difference, the reasoning behind it when relevant, and how best to accommodate differences.
Students still must navigate the reality of social differences that can exist between people, but from a standpoint that we can all collectively learn and work with these differences rather than defer to a social default.
How do I start a Peer Connections group?
If you know of students who could benefit from a Peer Connections social group and potential peer partners that would be a good match then you are already off to a great start!
Some other key elements for a Peer Connections group may include time and venue, parental permission, ensuring your own availability, preparing some topics and guidelines to help with your role as facilitator, and setting the scope and parameters of the program. Some groups go for a couple of months while others might span the whole school year!
Our Social Skills Group Curriculum includes guidance on all these steps and more plus handy forms and flyers to go with them, but the most crucial parts are forming the group, centering the needs of the students who are meant to be the primary beneficiaries, having a sense of how you will facilitate meetings, and how many meetings there will be.
We would also add that if you are interested in using our curriculum but cost represents a significant barrier, we strongly encourage you to reach out to us at the email address below!
Why are those distinctions important?
When socializing inside or outside of school, autistic people will sometimes find themselves in situations where they must calculate whether they feel comfortable acting as themselves or try to mask to get through the situation as best as they can.
This is already an unfortunate dilemma to face and it can be made worse when autistic students are told that some of their communication styles are “incorrect” and must be “fixed.”
Yet we as professionals still want to offer outlets for practicing social situations while avoiding creating unnecessary stigmas. It is therefore incredibly valuable to create safe socializing situations in which autistic students with goals related to socializing have the opportunity to navigate on their own terms without feeling judged or like adhering to allistic social norms is the only way to be successful.
At AGU we continue to strive to create resources that emphasize personal autonomy for autistic students while still making room for support needs and offering specific strategies for reaching important educational and life goals.
In our social skills group curriculum, making a point of embracing the reality of communication differences and consciously asking allistic peer partners to seek greater understanding helps us accomplish those goals.
I have a question or suggestion regarding this topic or the AGU curriculum.
We would love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at email@example.com. We are always looking to improve our existing resources and to hear what kinds of new resources people would want us to add to our ever-growing library.