Communication skills are a challenge for many people with cognitive difference, particularly those on the Autism spectrum. At the Ability Radio Project’s weekly groups we are all about communication, and practice weekly the skills we all need to get the best out of others, maintain friendships and express ourselves. It turns out that there is quite an evidence base for this kind of training in helping people with social and communication difficulties to learn some skills and become confident communicators.
Groupwork interventions draw on the concept of mutual aid between the people in a group. Because of the particular difficulties people with ASD have with communication and understanding other peoples intentions, their capacity for mutual aid must be trained. Once a structured process has been learnt, a group member is likely to point out this structure to other members when they err. It is preferable to have a mixed group including other students with better social skills to help facilitate the mutual aid between group members. Mackay, Knott and Dunlop (2007) outline the benefits of groupwork for improving “social and emotional perspective-taking, conversation skills, and friendship skills” in students with ASD (p.279).
Kasari & Patterson’s (2012) meta-analysis 34 articles of the research over the last 20 years found that supporting social skills in developing friendships and attentional focus training in groups where peer teaching could occur in a naturalistic setting were the most successful. Thus inclusive education practices fulfill a therapeutic value in addition to an educational one, providing the “positive role models” and “research based instruction” lauded by Theoharis and Causton (2014) in their overview of a school-wide approach to inclusion.
A broad range of skills is required for the completion of the goals of this project. Many of the tasks address problem areas that young people with ASD face, especially communication issues that stem from inability to read others emotions such as obeying the unspoken rules of communication, turn taking, tone of voice and emotions. Misunderstanding of the emotional content of speech and posture is linked to high levels of interpersonal exploitation that people with ASD and ID experience. Recognising the persuasive power of the media to misinform and portray marginalised groups negatively is an important skill to master for protecting self-esteem and providing impetus for self-advocacy. Making decisions, (such as content choice, who to interview, group consensus), are important skills to develop for adult life, especially in individuals who have often had their decisions made for them by parents and carers.
Teamwork and collaboration with others provides opportunities for peer mentoring and social skills development. Role playing a work environment, and incorporating students with disabilities in that context, also has flow on effect in the attitudes and acceptance of other students, teachers and the community. Interviewing and being interviewed provides opportunities for students to learn a lot about each other, and story-telling can be a powerful tool for increasing acceptance. Improvement in the social skills and inclusion of students will have flow on effects to school and family, increasing family functioning and coping, and these should be state goals of the intervention (Ruble et al 2012, p.52). These effects are consistent with a framework of Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1994), that identifies many levels at which change can be encouraged, and the interconnectedness of effects of that change.
The collaboration of the class in a news and radio-making team means that each student can play to their strengths while trying out those things they do less well (in an environment where the outcome is not dependent on each person mastering every task alone). Thus the student with ASD may be technically competent, or may enjoy asking pre-scripted questions developed as a team, or may simply be good at detecting editing errors. There are so many potential roles in a production team, that each student can find a personal strength in and the teachers’ role then is helping them identify what it is they do best in a fun, hands-on environment that will include playing and choosing music, talking and interviewing, using technology and other more academic skills like researching topics and script writing.
Referring partly to research into rehabilitation of prisoners and the inclusion of the Roma people via community radio in the U.K. , Grimes and Stevenson explore the ways radio can be used for inclusion. They see a role for radio producers and trainers to “facilitate personal development, while reconnecting people with society in a meaningful way” (p.179).
Grimes and Stevenson (2011) contend that, due to the goals of social change and participation of community radio, they are well placed to provide an avenue for empowerment of disadvantaged individuals. While the station itself is a location for community participation, volunteering and networking, the reach of community radio extends to the listening community it serves and a ‘third space’ where training and skills develop: a space where they say “popular culture meets pedagogy” (p.180). The authors note that community radio has been, “especially useful for hard to reach prisoners such as those who don’t read or mix very well” in the listening community (p.183). For the radio trainees, empowerment came in the form of transferrable skills. Scriptwriting, timing, teamwork and deadlines helped them develop literacy and numeracy skills, as well as a “sense of achievement” (Station manager in Stevenson, p.183).
Likewise Gunnel (2008) found that participation involved requiring students to teach some elements of the training to others, passing on the skills they had learnt. Students played multiple roles, for example as both interviewer and interviewee, “planning a course for radio newcomers”. In creating their own media products, they developed “self-confidence” and “autonomy” that defy the convention of passive consumption of mainstream media, empowering people as makers of meaning (p90). In an Australian study Meadow & Foxwell (2011) found that community media was “making a significant contribution to social gain, provision of education and training, local content and local news plurality, and media literacy” (p.90). This was particularly significant for mental health, where community media’s alternate and positive framing, portraying people with mental illness as “living well” has been found to “have a positive impact on general audiences’ perceptions” (p. 92). The authors cite Nairn and Coverdales; 2005 research that found increased acceptance when “audience are exposed to more first person accounts of those living with mental illness” (p.92).
Media making is an ideal context in which people can develop communication skills, analyse conversational processes and role play social interactions. Groupwork is an ideal way to simulate a workplace environment in the media, as well as having proven benefits in communication skills development for students with ASD. A community radio project can provide myriad opportunities for participants to gain knowledge about their peers and other community members. The cooperative skills students will learn in such an environment can have repercussions for the whole community, parents, carers, and others.
Kim Stewart, Coordinator, Ability Radio Project. MSW , BSc hons
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