My child has autism, should I be looking for a group class or an individual class? This is a question many parents have asked at some point in their child’s education journey.
The benefits of an individual one-to-one class are clear. Your child gets full attention and access to the teacher’s skills and abilities during the entire duration of the lesson. In this setting, new skills can be taught, learned, and built efficiently and effectively.
On the other hand, group classes are sometimes seen as less effective or efficient due to the splitting of the teacher’s attention to different students, depending on the class size. Parents may go so far as to avoid group classes, especially for their children who display challenging behaviours, as it is more difficult to manage their learning needs in a group setting.
But is group class really not for our children with Autism?
According to the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorder, the two main challenges individuals with Autism face are “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts” and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities”.
Through multiple trials, we have found that group classes may very well help our children with Autism in the above areas. Group classes help your child to:
1. Build Independence and Self-Determination
Self-determination is the ability and opportunity to communicate and make one’s personal decisions and choices by free will. As adults, we may, at times, be too quick to jump in to decide and assume simple things for our children. We may determine what they want to eat, what to wear, or even how the child may be feeling at a particular moment. This is especially common for children with Autism who face challenges in understanding contexts or communicating appropriately verbally or non-verbally. Over time, children with Autism may rely on familiar adults for their daily living decisions, lacking the opportunity to learn how to express and communicate, leading to a lower ability to do so in the future.
In group classes, self-determination skills are deliberately incorporated into the lessons to help build independence for your child with Autism through choice-making. While the teacher makes decisions on the structure and environment of the classroom, the child gets to make decisions on his/her own according to his or her judgment and interests. Through this, our children with Autism can learn what is a good decision and what is not, nurturing them to learn from their mistakes. A group class environment will expose your child to many opportunities to show their talents, abilities, and skills, promoting self-determination, independence, and self-confidence in a safe and nurturing environment.
2. Learn Communication and Social Skills
The biggest difference between a group class and an individual class is the presence of peers, or in general, other people aside from themselves. Children with Autism face challenges in social settings due to their limited communication and social skills. The mere presence of others in a setting can help them to learn these skills they lack, especially if they are also fellow learners.
Typical children learn best with peers of their age. They often relate better and feel closer due to their shared experiences. Group classes provide this safe environment of having peers around, and teachers become facilitators to help children with Autism learn social and communication skills.
In group class, our children with Autism will first learn that there are others physically present in the room. This means they have to share, and even accommodate physical space with others. This teaches them social concepts like personal space or designated space. They will also get to learn how to share materials with peers and/or adults, as the presence of another person requires joint attention to an activity, instead of having full control of their own agenda. Our children with Autism also learn to accommodate more abstract but critical social cues, such as accommodating to a peer’s learning needs, strengths, weaknesses, emotions, sensory needs like vocalizations or movements and so on, as they are not the only one in the class.
In terms of hard communication and social skills, group classes help to facilitate waiting skills, turn-taking skills, appropriate requesting and protesting skills, and many more. Every student in the class will be required to function in a pro-group manner, displaying skills such as on-seat behaviours, joint attention nearby or from a distance, following group instructions, and participating in scheduled activities and tasks.
3. Expand Interests and Flexibility
Other than communication and social challenges, the other core challenge children with Autism face is restricted and repetitive behaviours, patterns, and interests. Their weaker ability to manage change restricts their growth and experiences.
In group classes, the presence of others means a presence of diversity. Other than needing to accommodate the needs and behaviours of others, group classes bring in diversity in interests as well, something which our children with Autism need to be exposed to more they get to know their peers’ interests in videos, songs, games, activities and so on in group class. These activities can be added as choices for them to choose from. Often, children with Autism reject new activities and changes because of the unfamiliarity and the lack of predictability. But when we show them how new things can be done through a peer, it creates an opportunity for the child to make a choice to participate or not, expanding their current interests and patterns of behaviours. Even if the child decides not to participate, group classes can teach social skills like waiting for the activity to finish and accommodate and respecting a peer’s choice.
4. Group Skills are Required for Formal Schooling and Beyond
Most critically, group skills are assessed when a child enrolls for formal schooling. Whether your child attends a mainstream school or a special school, group skills are necessary for formal schooling as all classes are conducted as a class, or at least in small group settings. Formal schools often assess the child’s group skills to decide on his or her enrolment, class, and level designation.
We all live in social settings, and interacting with others is unavoidable. Therefore, group skills are critical life skills that introduce our children with Autism to formal school environments, and later on, in sheltered or independent employment settings, and beyond.
The table below shows a summary of what group classes focuses on, in comparison to a typical one-to-one class.
|Group Class||One-to-one Class|
|Goal|| 1. Build good classroom group skills|
2. Promote socio-emotional and communication development
|1. Build a specific skill|
|Skills Taught|| 1. Self-determination and independence|
2. Communication Skills e.g. requesting, protesting, initiating, responding
3. Social Skills e.g. waiting, turn-taking, joint attention, sharing, responding, following instructions, participation
5. Classroom routines
| 1. Focus and Stamina|
2. Technical skills
3. Classroom routines of tasks and activities
4. Following instructions
|Activities||1. Group activities, games, presentations|
2. Reflection, Feedback
|1. Individual activities based on child’s progress|
2. One-to-one guided practice and individual practice