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Structured approaches to the inclusion of pupils with autistic spectrum disorder in group work

Richard Rose and Marie Howley
Centre for Special Needs Education and Research (CeSNER), University College Northampton, UK.

Paper presented at the European Conference on Education Research, University of Hamburg, Germany, 17-20 September 2003


The effective management of group work has been identified as an essential component of teaching in all phases of education. The ability to work collaboratively on problem solving tasks, to share information and to play a role as a member of a team is critical in preparing pupils for greater independence. Within the UK 'working with others' has been identified as a key skill which must be addressed by all teachers. However for many pupils described as having special educational needs, the ability to work in a group presents particular challenges. In particular those with social and communication disorders present challenges to teachers when planning to include them in group activities. The specific learning needs and styles of pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) impact significantly upon their ability to learn within a social, group context. Difficulties with social communication, social interaction and impaired imagination characterise children who have a diagnosis of autism or Asperger's syndrome. Perceived difficulties may influence teacher expectations for these pupils when planning to include them in group work. As a result of their individual needs many pupils with an autistic spectrum disorder may find themselves socially excluded from parts of the teaching and learning process. This paper describes how a structured approach to group work, using 'jigsawing' as an aid to planning, was developed to enable a pupil with ASD to participate alongside his peers in a mainstream class. The 'jigsaw' approach was combined with 'structured teaching' strategies in order to address individual needs within a group work situation. Observations of pupils and teaching staff in a mainstream classroom were followed by an interview with a key teaching assistant in order to gauge perceptions of the approach. The findings from this study are being used to further develop structured approaches to enable pupils with ASD to participate in group work. The potential strengths of this combined approach will be presented through a single case study which will be used to analyse those factors which will inform future research in order to determine its efficacy in promoting inclusive practices. Features of the approach will be identified as potentially leading to the production of guidelines for teachers planning to address individual learning needs within mainstream classroom groups.

The challenge of group work for pupils with autistic spectrum disorders

The ability to function as part of a group is an essential skill for all learners as it assists in the development of collaboration and co-operation which is necessary within many areas of human activity. Effective teaching is dependent upon teachers being able to call upon a range of teaching styles (Galton 1989, Joyce, Calhoun and Hopkins 1997) and to encourage pupils to learn through a variety of situations. Whole class, teaching, paired work, individual instruction and group work have become standard practices in many schools and each requires careful planning and management if they are to be effective. Teachers have often reported that the management of group work presents a complex set of challenges (McCall 1983, Slavin 1987, Putnam, 1998) many of these related to pupil personalities, relationships, motivation and skills associated with sociability. For pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) functioning as part of a group can be particularly daunting. Obstacles to participating with peers in group work arise from the difficulties associated with the 'triad of impairments' (Wing and Gould, 1979), in particular problems with social communication and interaction. In addition, inflexibility, unusual sensory experiences and poor organisational and sequencing skills can hinder their progress when trying to work with others, in what are often, for them, considerably stressful learning contexts. For teachers who are charged with the responsibility of teaching such pupils, the ability to support them in developing the necessary social skills and understanding presents as a major challenge. This may lead to reduced expectations for pupils with ASDs to participate in group activities and learning.

The research reported here is founded upon an intention of assisting teachers in finding approaches to enable pupils with ASD to participate in group work activities. The two researchers have both previously undertaken independent studies into the development of group work approaches and in examining structured teaching for use with pupils with ASD (Sebba, Byers and Rose, 1993, Mesibov and Howley 2003). Following discussion of this previous work, the researchers identified a possible opportunity to combine established approaches to address the specific needs of teachers of pupils with ASD. The work reported here constitutes a pilot study conducted in a single junior school (pupil ages 7 - 11 years) which was completed in order to establish the viability of further pursuing the combination of jigsawing and structured teaching within a more substantive piece of research.


Jigsawing provides a structure for the management of group work and was developed from the research of Aronson and his colleagues (Aronson et al 1978). It is described as a process by which each pupil in a group is given his or her own responsibilities within a group work situation which must be completed for the whole group to succeed in completing a task. In this approach the task or jigsaw piece given to the individual pupil is critical to the completion of the overall task. Johnson, Johnson and Johnson-Holubec (1990) describe this as 'positive interdependence' they suggest that

"When positive interdependence is clearly understood, it highlights:

  1. Each group member's efforts are required and indispensable for group success (i.e. There can be no 'free-riders')
  2. Each group member has a unique contribution to make to the joint effort because of his or her resources and/or role and task responsibilities."

(Johnson et al 1990 P 11.)

In their research Johnson et al found jigsawing to be an effective means of promoting co-operative learning in heterogeneous class groups. They suggested that in groups of mixed ability the least able pupils were enabled to participate more fully and that opportunities for collaboration and interaction were increased.

Discussing the potential of jigsawing as a means of increasing the participation of pupils with learning difficulties in group activity, Sebba et al (1993) identified those obstacles to group participation which are encountered by many such pupils. An inability to form working relationships with peers, egocentrism, difficulties with seeing the needs of others and immature approaches to sharing materials have all been cited as problems encountered in pupils by teachers who work with pupils with special educational needs. Sebba and her colleagues provide a model for jigsawing which they suggest may provide the kind of structure which enables pupils with special needs to play a more satisfactory role within group work (see figures 1 and 2).

Rose (1991) introduced group work to a school for pupils with severe and profound and multiple learning difficulties. He conducted research into the use of this approach in a series of practical art lessons in a class of eight pupils who had a range of special educational needs. His observations of the behaviours of pupils in jigsawed lessons revealed a considerable increase in pupil collaboration and interaction in these lessons when compared to other similar but non-jigsawed situations. Pupils within the group observed as part of Rose's research exhibited diverse abilities and needs including challenging behaviours, physical and sensory disabilities. Rose suggests that an advantage of this technique may be the structure which it provides to teachers, enabling them to plan for the individual needs of pupils whilst also establishing group expectations. He further proposes that enabling a pupil to concentrate upon one specific part of an overall group task reduces distraction and removes the superfluous information which may overload a pupil who finds difficulties with retaining the detail required for addressing a whole activity.

Whilst jigsawing has been used by teachers in many classrooms, reports of its efficacy have, to date been limited. The authors of this paper propose that there is a need for work of a more empirical nature in this area in order to establish more clearly the factors which may determine the successful participation of pupils with a range of special needs in group activity. Such research will require that researchers work closely with teachers in order to plan interventions which must then be carefully assessed in order to ascertain effectiveness. It is anticipated that the establishment of research partnerships with teachers which also have a commitment to seeking the opinions of pupils about a variety of working situations will be a critical part of any research in this area (Rose 2003). The pilot research reported in this paper has identified communication between researchers and teachers in the planning of jigsaw activities to promote group participation as a critical factor and as the project develops further, guidelines for managing this situation will be further developed.

Anecdotally many teachers report that jigsawing has a role to play in encouraging the participation of pupils with special educational needs. The researchers have identified pupils with ASD as a group who generally have difficulties with group functions for whom jigsawing, when combined with structured teaching approaches may provide some support in gaining the necessary skills for co-operative learning. It is proposed here that: jigsawing provides a planning strategy for teachers that enable the pupil's individual needs, strengths and interests to be taken into account when allocating him/her a role within a group activity; creating 'positive interdependence' may result in peers supporting each other in working towards the group's goal; combining jigsawing with structured teaching approaches may strengthen both approaches and provide genuine opportunities for pupils with ASD to participate in group work.

Structured Teaching

'Structured Teaching' is a major component of the TEACCH approach that has 'evolved as a way of matching educational practices to the different ways that people with ASD understand, think, and learn' (Mesibov and Howley 2003). Structured teaching aims to develop independence, manage behaviour that may impede learning and facilitate teaching and learning by taking into account preferred learning styles of pupils with ASD. The approach makes use of visual information to develop an individualised structure that enhances meaning for pupils. The principles underpinning the approach, assessment and individualisation, enable the teacher to implement structured strategies in innovative and flexible ways in order to meet individual needs. Structured teaching can be used to increase participation in individual, paired and group activities and can facilitate curriculum access (Mesibov and Howley op cit). The approach comprises four elements that need to be addressed when considering individual need for structure: physical structure, schedules, work systems and visual information (Schopler, Mesibov and Hearsey 1995).

Physical structure

Many pupils with ASD find the classroom a chaotic and stressful environment. They may be confused by the purposes of space and may be distracted by sensory and physical features of the learning environment. Physical structure assesses individual needs within this area and provides meaning in what is potentially confusing and distracting. When group work is required, it may be important to consider any physical structure that may be necessary in order to include a pupil with ASD. This may mean paying close attention to seating position, demarcating the pupil's work space within a shared area or reducing any potential distractions within the group's working area.


Schedules (or timetables) provide information in a meaningful way about what will happen, when and where (Schopler et al 1995). Frequently, although not always, this information is presented in a visual format depending upon individual needs. The provision of a schedule can enable pupils to understand the sequence of activities and may lead to greater co-operation. For example, a pupil who is anxious about when a particular activity will occur may not participate in any activity due to his/her anxiety and uncertainties. The provision of a schedule means that the pupil has information about when activities will occur and this frequently reduces anxiety, resulting in increased participation.

Work systems

Pupils with ASD often face particular challenges when trying to organise materials within a lesson. They may frequently become anxious about the organisational aspects of a task and may spend more time trying to be organised than actually completing the task itself. Work systems provide an organisational strategy, individualised according to need, that provides information to the pupil about 'what work' (s)he will be doing, 'how much' work has to be done and what to do when the work is finished. The work system should also provide a way for the pupil to monitor for him/herself how (s)he is progressing with a task. This is information that all learners need access to, but it is usually presented to pupils verbally. The visual work system provides this information in a more meaningful way for the pupil with ASD. For example, a numbered tick list may help a pupil to keep track of a sequence of tasks within one activity (Mesibov and Howley 2003).

Visual information

In addition to addressing the physical structure needed within the classroom, providing meaningful schedules and developing organisational work systems, structured teaching also provides additional visual information to add meaning to instructions for completing specific tasks. This may mean considering visual clarity, visual organisation and visual instructions when differentiating tasks for pupils with ASD (Mesibov and Howley 2003). For example, visually highlighting essential instructions may be helpful for a pupil who is distracted by irrelevant information on a worksheet. Visual instructions may reinforce verbal directions or may remind a pupil of the social rules required during an activity.

Structured teaching strategies have been utilised in inclusive classrooms in order to enable pupils with ASD to participate. What is proposed here is that the use of structured teaching strategies may also be combined with jigsawing to strengthen inclusive practice for pupils with ASD. Jigsawing is a useful planning strategy, taking into account individual needs within a group and fostering interdependence, whilst structured teaching may be used to increase meaning and reduce the anxieties pupils with ASD experience when learning within a social context. Thus a pupil can be allocated an appropriate task within the group and be provided with visual information to enable him/her to take part.

The study

The researchers hypothesise that the combination of jigsawing and structured teaching may prove to be an effective means of planning for and encouraging the participation of pupils with ASD in group activity. This hypothesis is based upon an understanding of the principles underpinning the two approaches and the successes achieved by teachers who have made effective use of them in their classrooms. However, prior to the work undertaken by the authors (Howley and Rose 2003) there are no recorded instances of teachers having combined jigsawing and structured teaching. In order to engage with research in this area it was deemed necessary to conduct an initial small scale pilot study which would enable the researchers to develop a set of principles upon which to base a more substantial piece of research in the future.

In order to conduct this pilot study, the researchers identified a school for junior aged pupils where teachers had expressed an interest in considering how best to address the social needs of their pupils with ASD. The study school is located in a small town in the English East Midlands and has a good reputation for its work with pupils who have a wide range of special educational needs. An experienced class teacher within the school who has a boy with ASD in her class volunteered to participate in the research. The pupil was observed during a two hour history lesson requiring group work in order to observe his usual behaviour when working in a group. A planning meeting between the teacher, a teaching assistant (TA), the school management and the researchers took place to ensure that the principles of jigsawing and structured teaching were understood and to identify a suitable time during which a jointly planned lesson would be taught. The outcome of this meeting was that a lesson which the teacher was planning to deliver a few weeks later which involved a simulation activity was planned using a jigsaw framework. Within this meeting the teacher and TA were assisted in identifying how visual structure could be incorporated into the lesson in order to provide support and access for a pupil with ASD.

The lesson plan

The lesson involved a class of thirty pupils aged 10 - 11 years, including one pupil with ASD. Pupils were organised into groups in order to complete a problem solving activity that focused upon a simulated activity. A scenario was presented to the class regarding two 'lost' children. The task for the children was to try to discover the location of the lost children by considering a series of messages provided by a 'police incident' room. The messages were sent via computer throughout the lesson.

Jigsawed plan

Jigsawed planning for each group allowed the teacher to allocate specific tasks to pupils, all of which were critical to the group's success. The pupil with ASD, Jake, is a socially isolated child. During the previous 2 hour observation of a history lesson he did not participate with any peers but worked in isolation or with the TA. He was given similar, but separate tasks to his peers. He completely ignored the activities of peers and they also ignored him. This was described as typical behaviour by Jake's TA.

For the jigsawed plan, the teacher allocated Jake with a task that took into account his interest, i.e. computers. He was given the task of collecting messages from the computer each time they arrived (indicated by a 'beep') and delivering each message to a named peer. This was felt to be a reasonable target for Jake, given the low level of social interaction usually observed. The delivery of each message was crucial for the group to be able to work to the task of locating the lost children, thus creating interdependence.

Visual structure

A number of aspects were considered to increase Jake's understanding of what was potentially a very challenging lesson. Jake was seated next to the TA and one peer. The 'beeps' from the computer were an important part of the physical structure - it was felt that Jake would respond to these and would be able to collect messages as they arrived. Jake was already using a written schedule so this was used to make sure that he knew what would be happening. The activity was to take place all morning, so it was important that Jake knew what to expect as this was a change to his usual timetable. Potentially the task for Jake could be confusing. 39 messages would arrive and it was thought important that Jake had an understanding of how many times he would be required to collect the messages. He also needed to be able to monitor his progress and predict when the task would be finished. A token system was set up to provide Jake with this information. 39 tokens were used to indicate how many messages he would collect. These were deposited in a box as each message was collected; Jake would know he had finished when all the tokens were in the box. Additional visual cues included a written name card of the peer he was to give the message to and further written instructions were provided by the TA during the activity.


Jake was observed throughout his participation in the lesson (i.e. for 2 hours), after which he was withdrawn for an alternative activity. He remained in the lesson until all messages had been delivered. An independent researcher worked to an observation schedule, observing the following: Did Jake respond to the beep? Did he collect the message? Were the tokens used? Did he deliver the message to the named peer? Did he follow the written information provided? What types of prompts were needed from others? What off task behaviours occurred? In addition, the TA was interviewed approximately one week after the lesson, to find out his perspective of what had taken place.

Findings from the pilot study

Jake collected all 39 messages from the computer. He used the tokens when prompted by the TA and peers on 32 occasions and independently on 7 occasions. The TA reported that 'he picked up the tokens but didn't know how many to get. Sometimes he picked up 1, sometimes 2 or more'. Jake waited his turn at the computer, read the message on the screen and collected the paper message from his teacher. He took every message to the nominated peer, 18 times independently and 11 times when prompted. He was observed to place the message on the table near to the peer on most occasions. The TA reported that 'he left it (the message) at the boy's place at the table. A few times he put it in his hand. He left it at the boy's place even when the boy was not there'. On 7 occasions Jake handed the message to the peer, prompted by the peer's outstretched hand. Written information was followed when prompted by the TA. During the intervals between messages arriving, Jake engaged in a number of behaviours such as rocking on his chair, facial grimacing and standing up. He found a book to look at on 14 occasions. On one occasion, he looked at the location map with his peers.


Whilst it is acknowledged that the findings of this pilot study are limited due to its small-scale nature, the outcomes are nevertheless important in informing further development. These are discussed in relation to: Jake's involvement in group work; the response of his peers; the use of visual structure.

Jake's involvement in group work

Jake achieved his target of collecting and delivering messages to a nominated peer. His interest in the computer motivated him to collect each message. It should be noted that the 'beep' on the computer did not work and was simulated by the TA. Jake's TA thought that this explained why Jake often needed verbal prompts to collect the message and thought that he would have responded more independently to the electronic beep. Jake also delivered all messages to the nominated peer. However, he usually placed these on the table near to the peer unless prompted to hand it to him. The TA felt that a photograph of the peer could have been used to clarify that the message should be given to the peer rather than left at the table.

Jake did not engage with the group during their discussions apart from on one occasion to look at a map. Jake's TA felt that this was because, 'there were several minutes between messages. He had nothing to do at theses times, need something to give him, something to do'. The lack of structure between collecting and delivering messages resulted in off task behaviour. It is suggested by the researchers that jigsawed planning and visual structure should be considered for all elements of group work in order to increase participation.

Response of peers

The response of Jake's peers is as important as Jake's own behaviour. Jake's group was reliant upon Jake delivering the messages for them to complete their task, thus creating interdependence. As a result, Jake's peers were observed on a number of occasions prompting Jake to collect and deliver the messages. The TA reported that the peers helped Jake by reminding him to use the tokens or how many to take and also in gesturing for him to hand over the message. This behaviour was quite different to that observed in the previous observation when Jake and his peers ignored each other. In addition, the structures provided for Jake were used as prompts by his peers, perhaps offering them a strategy for communicating with him more effectively and with greater confidence than through verbal directions alone.

Use of visual structure

Jake attempted to use the tokens and the TA said that he knew that when they were all in the box he had finished - Jake was reported to say this on a couple of occasions. He also used written cues including his schedule (although usually prompted by the TA) and the written name of the peer to give the message to. However, the TA suggested that he had not had time to 'learn the system. It's the first time he has had a system. He needs a couple of times to learn it.' Despite this, the TA felt that the structure was helpful and that Jake had stayed much longer in the lesson than he would have done without it. He also suggested that there were other activities where this approach could be used and was for example keen to try it for a circle time activity. The TA identified a number of difficulties with the structure that could be addressed in a future activity:


The pilot study indicates that jigsawing and structured teaching, when combined, enabled:

the pupil with ASD to play a distinctive role in group activity

the pupil to participate in limited interaction with a peer

the pupil to follow instructions through use of visual cues and prompts from adult and peers

peers to support and encourage the pupil with ASD.

In addition, the study has identified two key issues that need to be considered when planning for this type of activity. Firstly, time is needed for all pupils to learn about expectations of the structure and jigsaw and secondly, attention to detail of structure needs to be precise. This, of necessity demands a lengthy period of preparation with time spent by both researchers and teachers ensuring clarity of purpose and approach. Whilst many teachers have become familiar with the provision of structured teaching approaches when working with pupils with autistic spectrum disorders, few have had an opportunity to combine this with a formal approach to planning group work.

In addition to spending time preparing teachers, it is also essential that all pupils engaged in the activity become aware of the purpose of the jigsaw and know what is expected of the pupil with ASD. A failure to communicate intention effectively to pupils may result in well intention interventions which create greater dependency in the pupil with ASD. All pupils in the group working with this individual pupil need to know what is expected of this pupil and how their own behaviours may impact either positively or negatively upon their ability to achieve desired outcomes.

Future directions for the research

The research reported here is at its beginning stages and has to date been used to establish some working principles in enabling pupils with ASD to participate in group activities. Whilst many previous researchers and writers have identified critical factors in developing group work in schools (Galton et al. 1980) McCall 1983, Bennett and Cass 1988) less attention has been given to the specific challenges of involving pupils with special educational needs, and particularly those with ASD in such activity.

The researchers are currently working with teachers in order to identify a sample to extend the work reported here. It is anticipated that in order to conduct further investigations into the efficacy of group work as an approach, there will be a need to provide training to teachers and teaching assistants in the use of jigsawing and in the use of structured teaching strategies. There is also a need to involve pupils in discussions about the purpose and use of the approach. Future research will include further observations of jigsawed and structured lessons in a range of educational settings, with teachers involved in the analysis of findings.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 October 2003