Working While Autistic: Effective Group Projects for Everyone
Last week’s introduction to the “Working While Autistic” series generated a lot of interest and requests for follow-up posts on specific topics. Number one among these requests involves group projects and ways that teachers and employers can best utilize the talents of autistic team members.
I spoke with my friend and Vermont College of Fine Arts classmate Laurie Morrison to share ideas and experiences. Laurie is a seventh and eighth grade English teacher in Philadelphia and the co-author, with Cordelia Jensen, of the forthcoming middle grade novel Every Shiny Thing, a novel in both verse and prose about two friends — one a wealthy girl with an autistic brother, and the other a foster child — who bond over their family problems and become involved in a Robin Hood-type scheme to battle injustice. Laurie was an early supporter of Rogue and invited me to speak in her school, and I offered her advice for the portrayal of Lauren’s brother and parents in Every Shiny Thing. And she wanted to know how teachers can more effectively honor and nurture the special talents of autistic students, particularly through group projects.
As I mentioned in last week’s article, getting an autistic child to buy into the group project is the first challenge. It’s tempting to allow the student (or worker) to do an entire project alone or to work on a discrete section independently. But especially in the case of students, this doesn’t solve the bigger problem — helping them function in a society in with some interaction with others is necessary. As I often explain to student groups, having autism is like having other learning disabilities in that it’s not impossible to learn specific skills — in this case, social and communication skills — but they require practice, over and over, and if the practice isn’t constant, the skills wither and are quickly lost. It’s important to explain that “why” to a student reluctant to engage in a group activity. I’ve always needed to know the “why” before buying into something I really don’t want to do. But knowing and accepting the why…I may not be happy about it, but I know it’s for my own good and will give it my best effort.
You may have noticed that I’ve gone from the generalization to my specific experience. It’s a truism that “when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” That also means that it’s important not to make generalizations but to solicit the input of the student. Ask about past experiences and concerns. Share the testimonies of others. It makes a difference for me when I hear other people’s stories and experiences because I can’t read minds. I assume other people see the world in a certain way because I see the world in that way…unless they explain to me otherwise.
Laurie and I spoke about the trade-offs in group projects between honoring the process and covering the content. It’s important to respect the process. This happens in two ways. One is devoting the time to discussing process, laying ground rules, and clarifying expectations. The other is making sure there isn’t “one right answer,” so that students have the freedom to come to any reasonable conclusion or outcome based on the evidence.
Let’s look at the process in more depth. When I described to another friend a past miscommunication I had with an editor, she asked me, “What would you suggest to a future editor to help avoid similar miscommunications?” I thought for a while and answered, “After hearing what the person had to say, I’d like the opportunity to repeat those ideas and instructions, to make sure I understood them completely and wasn’t putting my own spin on what the person was saying.” So, repeating instructions, assignments, requirements, and goals are an important element of the process. I like to write things down, because it helps me to remember and refer back to them. Students should be encouraged to do the same. And the written instructions should be checked over, to make sure they match the verbal ones. In my case, I tend to overfocus on the positive elements of an editor or beta reader critique and downplay the work that needs to be done. I don’t think it’s overconfidence in my writing as much as my tendency to take everything literally and seeing a request to change something in one place to be only in that place. In the past, that’s meant revisions that don’t go deep enough, or are not comprehensive enough. Eventually, I’ve usually gotten it right, but not after trying someone’s patience.
This leads me to the second suggestion for group work. Ask all the students in the group the following question: “How would you like us to tell you that some of your work needs to be fixed or redone?” Most students prefer a positive, gentle approach, but some need specific examples of work that needs to be redone and can generalize from there. Others need every problem highlighted until they can figure out things on their own. Some see, “I would like you to change this,” as meaning that changing it is optional. “You need to change this, because…” would be more effective. Having students ask each other how they’d like feedback given is a great way of showing neurotypical students how to interact with their neurodiverse classmates. It’s equally valuable for autistic and other neurodiverse students to learn how other students think and how they’d like to receive feedback. For instance, shortly after Rogue came out, a librarian on the spectrum told me of an experience when, in high school English, the students exchanged papers with their peers for editing — a common assignment. While most of the students wrote “good, good” with only a few changes, she marked her partner’s essay in a sea of red ink filled with her all-too-honest feedback. This did not endear her to her classmates.
To summarize, here are the three suggestions for maximizing the effectiveness of group projects with autistic students:
1. explain the “why” of the group project to an autistic student reluctant to participate, in order to increase the buy-in
2. ask the autistic student to repeat instructions and write them down in order to make sure they’re understood and not misinterpreted from a neurodiverse perspective
3. ask all the students how they’d like someone to tell them that something they worked on needs to be fixed or redone
The great thing about all these suggestions is that not only do they make group projects a more successful experience for neurodiverse students, but they’re also good practices for everyone. And not just in school, but in workplaces as well!