Social skills: How to understand and support autistic students

by Georgia Harper

Social skills: How to understand and support autistic students
Georgia Harper is 24 years old and lives and works in London. She is a member of Ambitious about Autism’s Youth Council.

The complex social hierarchy within the school gates – a hierarchy which often punishes anyone who stands out as different – is daunting even for some neurotypical young people. For me, it felt like everyone else had completely changed over the summer between primary and secondary school, and not for the better.

In hindsight, the biggest change was probably in my own self-awareness. Primary school break times were a combination of dancing around the edge of the playground alone and clinging to the same few best friends, but while the grown-ups around me made a fuss about it, I was happy.

As I reached secondary school, though, there was a much bigger emphasis on being liked and having a group to belong to. While I’m lucky enough to have made some great friends, I was also much more conscious of the constant rejection from others. To make matters worse, being alone makes you a target, and having vulnerabilities to exploit even more so – in my case, lots of people found my autistic meltdowns hilarious and would take any opportunity to provoke them.

Social skills just as vital as academic grades

I feel very lucky to have at least got my autism diagnosis a few years prior; some people dismiss or fear “labelling” people, but without that label that explained my differences, I would have internalised all the other, much worse, labels I was hearing about myself even more. However, despite that diagnosis, I was never given a Statement of special educational needs (now Education, Health and Care Plans) and was completely without support for the vast majority of my school life. Time and time again, my family and I came up against the same old barrier: “She gets good grades, what’s the problem?”

Regardless of academic record, the idea that grades are the only thing that matter in a young person’s life is an incredibly unhealthy message to send out. For me, this meant masking as a range of issues went unresolved, disbelief if I did ask for help, and ultimately having to be re-assessed and re-diagnosed aged 22 during my Masters degree, because by the time I knew what support would be beneficial to me, I no longer had proof of the diagnosis. 

Georgia Harper
Georgia Harper

In general, there was a sense that only academic support was possible, or formal and “official” enough to count, leaving a massive gap in the system for those autistic young people whose main challenges in school fall outside the written curriculum, but this doesn’t have to be the case. At minimum, simply recognising those challenges, for example in EHCP decisions, can make a big difference further down the line. Basic understanding of autism as a natural difference in brain wiring, and meltdowns as an involuntary response to often preventable triggers rather than a tantrum to be punished, can go a long way.

Recognising bullying for what it is

I think I also would have appreciated more education around what bullying can look like. In books, films and TV shows, there’s often a specific person or group that everyone universally recognises as 'The Bullies', and the bullying is obvious to their target and to others.

In real life, bullies might be perfectly nice to their friends and those higher up the social hierarchy and they don’t tend to announce that they’re about to bully you. They certainly don’t announce that they’re about to bully you because you’re autistic – they might not even know – but if it’s based on your meltdowns or your special interests, or the way you move or speak, then it is because you’re autistic, and either way it’s not acceptable. It’s easier said than done when resources are scarce, but keeping an eye out for autistic pupils and intervening before crisis point is reached can be incredibly valuable.

Tips for educators when supporting socialising

At university I had a much easier time making friends, in large part through getting involved in student societies around my interests. I wonder if, while at school, I would have benefited from more structured options for socialising at breaktimes as opposed to the wild west of the playground.

Having said that, it’s important to focus on whether the autistic student is happy, rather than whether they comply with neurotypical norms. Lots of autistic people would like help with socialising but equally, lots of autistic people are happy to be alone sometimes. Telling them they’re not making enough friends will only make them feel bad about it when they didn’t before. The key point is to set a good example for your neurotypical pupils by accepting and supporting your neurodivergent pupils – not because they might get the best exam results, but because they’re human beings.

Georgia's top tips for socialising

  • Remember that grades aren't everything - academic ability shouldn't exclude children from the support they need in other areas.
  • Learn what an autistic meltdown is and what (or who!) might trigger it in your pupils - then intervene before there's a crisis point.
  • Teach your pupils that bullying doesn't always fit the stereotypes - you might help someone, autistic or not, to name their experiences.
  • Is the child happy? - some autistic people want support to socialise, but others don't want to be forced into it.
  • And again- I cannot stress this enough - remember that grades aren't everything!

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