Living with Autism: Nothing Beats Warm Support from Good Friends

Kai and his friends.

The sound of children’s chatter and laughter fill the classroom corridor. As I step into the Year Four classroom, I am surprised to see the children mostly decked out in traditional outfits. The English language teacher explains that the class is learning about different local cultures that day.

My eyes search and find Kai. He is playing sepak bulu ayam (“kicking the featherball” – but in this case a shuttlecock) with four friends. Coincidently, they are all girls. I watch with a great sense of pride as the girls patiently teach Kai to kick a shuttlecock.

Kai is not your typical 10-year-old. At age three, he was diagnosed with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects his social, communication and adaptive behaviours. Then, he had no speech, avoided social interaction and showed numerous challenging behaviours. Realising the importance of early intervention, his mother, Mrs Tan, enrolled him in an early intervention programme six months after diagnosis.

When Kai was four, Mrs Tan tried enrolling him in a regular kindergarten. After several rejections, she finally settled for a childcare centre. It was only at age five-and-a-half that Kai was finally given a place in a small kindergarten.

Four years ago, Kai was accepted by his current primary school. However, his first school year was a turbulent one. He had difficulties remaining seated for lessons. He would often run out to watch the fans in the other classrooms due to his special preoccupation with things that spin. When he became upset, he sometimes hit his classmates as his way of protesting because he had difficulty expressing himself in words.

Fortunately for Kai, he had a class teacher who was patient and understanding. Teacher Ong had several talks with Mrs Tan on how to manage his challenging behaviours. She also used storytelling to talk to Kai’s classmates, telling them to treat him like a “little brother” who needed their guidance. Several of Kai’s classmates were assigned to be his peer helpers to support him in class.

Although Teacher Ong was transferred to another school a year later, Kai’s subsequent class teachers carried on the practice of encouraging willing classmates to support him. Today, Kai is still surrounded by a small group of supportive peers such as Abigail, Suriya and Min Min who continue to guide him during lessons as well as other school activities.

Teacher Lim, Kai’s current class teacher, observes that a handful of Kai’s classmates will instinctively help him in class because they have been doing so since Year One.

“Most of the time the girls will guide him. Sometimes the boys will help too but not that often. Boys tend to be more mischievous and playful, not so attentive like the girls,” she notes.

Abigail, Suriya and Min Min have been Kai’s peer helpers since Year One. The girls not only provide learning support by guiding Kai during lessons, they also render him the much needed social support for shaping his behaviour. They tell me that through the years Kai has made tremendous improvement, especially in his behaviour. Unlike in Years One and Two, he can now sit down quietly and learn. He does not pinch his peers or pull their hair, and seldom hits them like he used to in the past.

The girls admit that they used to feel angry when Kai was aggressive towards them in Years One and Two. However, they slowly accepted him as a friend after seeing that he was able to learn to behave himself.

“After we scold him, he will gradually learn to behave,” Min Min says. Suriya is quick to add that scolding does not mean they shout at him.

“He will pay attention and listen if we use a firm and louder voice to talk to him. Not scold him,” explains Abigail, who is assigned as Kai’s main peer helper this year.

The girls observe that occasionally Kai would get into trouble because he tends to imitate negative peer behaviours such as using foul language and the finger sign. “Sometimes certain classmates get him to do wrong or embarrassing things on purpose to make fun of him,” notes Abigail, adding that she would tell Kai not to do those things if she was there. Indeed, having a concerned peer does serve as protection against errant classmates.

The girls relate that they feel happy and touched when they see Kai behaving and learning in class as a result of their guidance. While it may appear as if Kai is the only one getting the support, the girls look to Kai for help too sometimes. They describe him as their “little teacher”.

Suriya explains: “Sometimes he will teach us things. Especially during science – he will teach us how to fix the wires when we don’t know how to do it.” She points out that Kai is especially good at science and computers. Their class teacher even put him in charge of the smart board in class.

“He is a very smart child. His brain is different from ours. Some things he seems to just capture in his brain. But we can’t. We need to slowly memorise it,” adds Suriya before elaborating on Kai’s aptitude at remembering car number plates.

“Sometimes when we don’t understand what a teacher has taught, we will get him to go and ask the teacher to explain again, especially if the teacher is a fierce one. Teachers are usually more lenient towards Kai so it is better for him to ask,” says Min Min.

Teachers tend to be more accommodating towards Kai. This does not make the girls envious though, as they understand that he is different from them and needs time to learn certain things. Abigail says, “Sometimes teacher will punish Kai too when he misbehaves.”

Kai says he likes going to school. He takes his time to process and respond to my questions. Appearing to enjoy the company of both boy and girl classmates, he names a few peers who help him frequently as his best friends. He especially likes a boy classmate who was his partner in a recent science project.

Teacher Yong, who teaches Bahasa Malaysia and History, believes that it is important for teachers to foster empathy towards children with special needs because this will encourage peers to help the child and prevent bullying.

She has used stories to help her pupils understand their peers with special needs, and finds role play particularly useful for teaching right and wrong behaviour to pupils with special needs. Additionally, she highlights the family’s role in addressing any arising problems in school.

Peer rejection and bullying among children with special needs is well-documented. Studies have shown that compared to typically developing children, children with special needs are less likely to receive social overtures from a peer, have fewer friends and face higher risks of peer avoidance and bullying.

Students with special needs who receive consistent peer support have been reported to show improvements in social interaction, expressive language and social skills along with decline in disruptive behaviour.

A study on Childhood Disability in Malaysia, published by Unicef last year, reports that children with disabilities often experience bullying and mistreatment in school. The study also finds that children with learning and behavioural disabilities are generally less accepted than children with physical disabilities because they are perceived as more challenging to understand. Taken together, these findings highlight the necessity for teachers in inclusive classrooms to promote peer empathy and support for their students with special needs. Students with special needs who receive consistent peer support have been reported to show improvements in social interaction, expressive language and social skills along with decline in disruptive behaviour. Increased academic engagement among peers who provide support has been noted. Research has shown that reading books and positive discussions about children with special needs can also promote understanding and acceptance among typically developing children.

The BOLD Association for Children with Special Needs, Penang recently published a series of children’s books titled “We Are Friends”. Designed for pre-schoolers and primary school-agedchildren, the books are written in simple language and are fully illustrated. Prior to publication, BOLD had run a series of pilot sessions to test out children and teachers’ response to the books in preschools and primary schools in Penang.

“Other than telling the story, it is important for teachers to conduct post-story discussions and activities to bring home the message of understanding, accepting and helping peers with special needs,” says Dr Tan Liok Ee, BOLD’s honorary executive director. “If there is a child with special needs in the class, the books will help in discussions with students on how, as friends, they can help.”

The “We Are Friends” series consists of five titles, one each on autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down syndrome and dyslexia, and a final book about friendship despite differences. Its publication is sponsored by the ECM Libra Foundation and Penang Education Council.

Available in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, this series can be purchased from BOLD at 81 Cangkat Minden Jalan 5, 11700 Gelugor, Penang. You can contact BOLD at +604 6598611 or email

(Names of teachers and children in this article have been changed to protect their privacy)

Lee Soo Hoon is a consultant for inclusion support at BOLD Association for Children with Special Needs, Penang.

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