How To Make Group Work Easier For Autistic Students

Learn how to provide the right kinds of support so everybody can benefit from feeling like part of a team.
Kids doing a group drawing project

Imagine that it’s the first week at your new job, and you’re sitting in a meeting with a group of coworkers you barely know.

Everyone is talking at once and you can’t make sense of anything they’re saying. Your coworkers are leaning out of their chairs discussing something in the middle of the table that you can’t see, and the meeting room is cramped. Bodies are pressed uncomfortably close to yours and the noise in the room is deafening.

Your boss walks past and says “Come on, join in!” But you don’t know how to do that because you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, or who to ask. Suddenly someone says “Okay let’s get to work” and the group disbands, leaving you to feel overwhelmed and confused about what just happened.

This is how classroom group work can feel for a lot of students with autism.

Working in a team like this can be really hard work. It’s emotionally, socially, physically and mentally draining for some, downright scary for others. And the effects of this stress and exhaustion can last longer than one lesson, it can impact learning for the rest of the day or even all week.

In fact, for some autistic students who find team work activities to be daunting, even the mere possibility that they’ll have to do it at some point can increase their anxiety about being at school.

The stress that students with autism feel during group work is usually attributed to social skills, but that’s just a small part of why this kind of activity can be challenging or unappealing for these kids. So let’s look at some of the other reasons.

Why is group work difficult?

Unpredictability

For many students with autism, it can feel like group work happens without warning. Suddenly hearing the words “Find a partner” can trigger anxiety or panic before the task has even begun. Team mates usually change with each activity, so it’s difficult for them to predict ahead of time who will be in their group.

This lack of control over the task or its outcome can be especially stressful for students who need routine, or for those who have set high standards of perfection for their own work.

Group selection

Forming a group is a complex task which can be really intimidating for many students. First they have to find people they know, which can be tricky with everyone moving around the room (especially for kids who have trouble recognizing others).

Once they’ve identified potential partners they have to act quickly, approaching them in the right way with the right words, and confidence that they’re not going to be rejected. This places huge demands on language, social skills and executive functions like planning and attention, which are all areas that can be challenging for kids with autism.

Shared physical space

Huddling together on the floor or around a desk can be intimidating and overloading for students who are hypersensitive to touch and smell. This kind of work also changes the rules for personal space, which can be confusing for some and overwhelming for others.

Transitions

Every time the class splits into teams requires a shift in attention, environment and sensory input which can be uncomfortable, unsettling or demanding for some students. They have to disengage from what they’re doing and adjust to a flood of new information.

The student might also then find themselves without the cues and props that they usually use to cope with transitions like these (e.g. the defined space of their desk which helps them to remember where they are supposed to sit).

Sensory overload

Group work is often noisy and chaotic. There might be close body contact, chairs being moved in and out, the smell of paint or markers, many voices talking at once and visual distractions. Which all adds up to a lot of extra sensory information to cope with on top of all these other additional demands.

Reliance on social skills

Collaboration places heavy demands on the ability to negotiate social situations. Students need to quickly form a bond with their team mates, understand what the group expects of them and when it’s their turn to talk.

They also need to accept the potential limitations and mistakes of other students in their group, and not only resolve their own conflicts but find a way to cope with those between other group members. All of this can be very stressful for those students who are still developing these kinds of complex social skills.

Understanding and negotiating roles

An important part of working together as a group is learning how to contribute to the outcome and making sure that everyone does so equally. But the tasks and roles aren’t always clear, and the method for choosing or assigning them can be confusing. It might not be obvious to the student who is in charge, or what to do if there’s a problem or they disagree with something. This can sometimes lead to leadership struggles and make collaboration difficult

What can you do to help?

Give advance warning

Let students know ahead of time that they are going to be working in teams, or when their groups might be changing. This will give them time to adjust and help reduce last-minute anxiety.

Keep groups small

Smaller groups can make the demands of group work more manageable and allow students to build up their confidence and skills. Try practicing group work skills in pairs before moving on to larger scale projects and teams.

Keep groups familiar

Allow the student to work in a group with classmates that they know well and are already comfortable with, especially when the project they will be working on is new or complex.

Use warm-up bonding activities

These can help students to become familiar with their partners, build trust and ease into working together.

Clearly define rules and expectations

Let students know exactly what’s going to happen in the group work task and what the outcome should be, including how team mates are expected to treat each other. Provide a visual list of rules that the group can follow and refer to, and if possible an example of what the finished result should look like.

Be flexible with space

Not all team work has to physically happen in a group. Instead of huddling together on the floor or at a desk, try having short initial meetings before separating to work on individual tasks before coming together again to report progress back to the group.

Specify tasks

Make a list of the different jobs that students might perform during group activities e.g. tracking turns, taking notes, watching the time, reporting on results. Provide added support to help them to choose one of these roles, or to cope if they end up with a role that’s too demanding for them. Visual supports like group task cards will help them to remember which job they’re supposed to be doing.

Identify groups

Give each team a clear visual identity to help students remember which one they belong to. You can create team names, for example, give each group a different coloured badge or assign specific work areas.

Provide opportunities to practice

Group work is a complex skill that needs to be broken down and mastered in stages. Just as you wouldn’t teach a child to swim by throwing them into the pool, students shouldn’t be expected to navigate big group projects without first having lots of opportunities to practice:

  • How and when to get help
  • How to perform the different roles in a group
  • Setting goals and prioritizing
  • What to do when there’s a problem
  • Identifying and resolving conflict
  • Lots of positive group work experiences!

Whenever a student has a successful time working in a group it gets added to their experience bank and helps to reduce the stress and anxiety they feel the next time there’s a group project to be done.

So providing them with lots of low-stress, enjoyable and successful team experiences will really help to develop their confidence and positive feelings about their ability to work well in a group.

Last updated 22 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Autism Group Work Support Kit cover

Resources

If you have students who need a little extra help with team work then check out the Group Work Support Kit, a big bundle of classroom tools to help autistic students find success working on team projects. It contains:

  • Matching card sets to help students find someone to work with (without needing to rely on social skills or facial recognition)
  • Fun warm-up activities to introduce group roles and help team mates get to know each other
  • Badges and table labels as a visual tool to help students find/remember their group
  • Group work rule posters to remind about positive team behaviours
  • Social story explaining why group work is important, what happens when working in a group and suggestions for things to say
  • Troubleshooting worksheet with common problems a team might have and what to do about them
  • Turn tracker to help students record how many times each team member has taken a turn or added an idea
  • Activity summary sheet to remind students who is in their group and what they need to do
  • Post-activity reflection sheet for students to review their group experience and how well their team worked together

The kit costs $10, and is available from the Snagglebox Downloads section or Teachers Pay Teachers.

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.