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How To Make Group Work Easier For Autistic Kids

How To Make Group Work
Easier For Autistic Kids

Image: Omar Eduardo

Imagine this...

It’s your first week at a new job and you’re sitting in a meeting with a bunch of coworkers you barely know. Everyone is talking at once and you can’t make sense of any of it. They’re leaning out of their chairs, discussing something in the middle of the table that you can’t see, and the meeting room is small - bodies are pressed uncomfortably close to yours and the noise in the room is deafening. Your boss walks past and shouts “Join in!” How? You have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, or who to ask. Suddenly someone says “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 autistic kids.

Working in a team can be really hard work - it’s emotionally, physically and mentally draining for some, downright scary for others. And the effects of this stress and exhaustion can last much longer than one lesson, it can impact learning for the rest of the day or even all week. For some kids who find group work 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 of group work is usually attributed to “not wanting to interact”, but this is just a small part of why this kind of classroom activity can be particularly challenging or unappealing for these kids. So let’s look at some of the other reasons.



Group work is very rarely announced in advance, and suddenly hearing the dreaded words “Find a partner” can trigger anxiety or panic before the task has even begun. It’s difficult to predict ahead of time who will be in your group, and team mates usually change with every activity. The lack of control over the task or its outcome can be incredibly stressful for kids who need routine, or for those who have set high standards of perfection for their own work.


Moving in and out of teams requires shifts in attention, environment and sensory input which can be uncomfortable, unsettling or demanding for some kids. They have to disengage from what they’re doing and adjust to a flood of new information, and they might find themselves without the cues and props they usually use to cope (the defined space of their desk that shows them where they should sit, the noise buffering effect of the carpet beneath their chair).

Group selection

Forming your own group is a complex task which can be really intimidating for a lot of kids. First you have to find the people you know, which can be tricky with everyone moving around the room (especially for kids who have trouble recognizing others). Once you’ve identified potential partners you have to act quickly, approaching them in the right way with the right words... and a hell of a lot of confidence that you’re not going to be rejected. This places huge demands on language skills, social understanding and executive functions like planning and attention, which are all areas that can be challenging for autistic kids.

Shared physical space

Group work which involves huddling together on the floor or around a desk can be very intimidating for kids 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.

Sensory overload

Team work is noisy by nature, with a whole room of people simultaneously talking, laughing and debating. There might also be close body contact, chairs being moved in and out, the smell of paint or markers and lots of visual distraction.

Reliance on social skills

Collaboration is an activity that places heavy demands on the ability to negotiate social situations. You need to quickly form a bond with your team mates, understand what the group expects of you and know when it’s your turn to talk. You need to be able to accept the potential limitations and mistakes of others, and not only resolve your own conflicts but cope with those between other group members. All of this can be very stressful for those kids 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 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 may not be obvious who’s in charge, or what to do when there’s a problem or you disagree with something. This can lead to leadership struggles and make collaboration difficult.


For kids who find group work overwhelming...

Give advance warning

Let them know ahead of time when they’re going to be required to work in teams, or when groups might be changing.

Keep groups small

Team them up with just one or two partners until they get more confident at managing the demands of the situation.

Keep groups familiar

Allow them to form groups with someone they already know well, especially when the subject they’re investigating is new or complex.

Assign groups

Being left out or chosen last really sucks, so take the pressure off by pre-selecting teams.

Specify roles

Make a list of the different jobs that group members might perform - note taker, time keeper, editor, spokesperson. Provide support for helping them to choose one of these roles, or to cope if they end up with a role that’s too demanding for them.

Specify tasks

Provide a visual list of rules or questions to follow, and if possible an example of what the expected outcome should look like.

Identify groups

Give each group a clear visual identity to help kids know which one they belong to - create team names, assign specific work areas or give each group a coloured badge.

Be flexible with space

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

Teach group skills as a separate task

Team 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, kids 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


The bottom line

Working in a group places heavy demands on most of the key areas of challenge for autistic kids - interpersonal and social skills, communication, executive functioning, change, transitions and coping with sensory demands. So it's easy to see why these kinds of activities can be particularly hard work for these kids.

The traditional ‘experiential’ approach to developing team skills is to put kids in groups and let them figure it out, but nobody learns well when they’re stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. Understanding the reasons why group work can make autistic kids feel this way is important in providing the right kinds of support, so everybody can benefit from feeling like part of a team.

This article was first published in June 2013.

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