“Most of the youngsters diagnosed with autism in my classes are not quick to pick up on social cues,” commented an elementary teacher. “The kids would blend in better with the group if they could learn to follow the crowd rather than needing to be guided through every group procedure and process.” Although individuals with autism will certainly encounter situations where we would prefer they NOT follow the lead of their peers – especially when they are teens – learning to “be a sheep” is an important social skill that helps them in everyday life.
The strategy implemented to teaching “sheep” behavior depends on the functioning level of the individual with autism. Basically, we are helping folks learn to notice social cues, to pay attention to what people around them are doing, and to follow the lead of the crowd. Individuals who have good receptive language and social awareness can learn these skills through social stories and/or role-playing skits that allow them to learn and rehearse appropriate responses for various situations.
It is a bit more challenging to teach “sheep” skills to individuals who have more marked deficits in the areas of receptive language or social interaction. Our friends with autism who are less in tune with other people may not care if they are marching to a different drummer. And individuals who do not process language well and do not usually grasp abstract concepts may not understand explanations about the advantages of following social cues. In this case, we might focus on teaching the “how” without worrying about explaining the “why.”
For example, a first grader diagnosed with autism is non-verbal and does not seem to notice or respond to verbal prompts or visual cues such as photo schedules or transition objects. She will literally just stand in one spot unless someone takes her hand to follow the group to lunch or to recess. Rewards such as food or books or stickers do not seem to motivate her to take a step to follow her classmates. For several years the teachers have patiently implemented several different strategies with combinations of a short verbal direction, photo cue cards, and a transition object for her to hold (e.g. a ball for recess or an apple for lunch.) She is finally starting to move forward when an adult walks several feet in front of her with their hand extending back toward her but slightly out of reach. Her family is using similar strategies at home and in the community. Over time, she will learn to “be a sheep” and follow the lead of other kids in group activities more independently of prompting. Hopefully, this cute little sheep will begin to notice and begin interacting with the other little sheep.
Note to FAQautism.com listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com