Understanding Friends

A program to educate children about differences; to foster empathy and mutual understanding; with the option of supporting self-expression/self-advocacy by children on the spectrum.

Understanding Friends is designed to be presented to classes of students in the elementary and middle grades. Adaptations can be made for older classes. This article contains lesson plans and a list of supplies that you will need. After presenting this program in all its revisions, to thousands of students since 1985, I have found that usually it is most effective to go beyond the generic program (Option A) and to discuss specific issues, giving accurate information about real students in concrete situations. Options B and C will help you with this. Option D suggests ways to include the student with ASD in the presentation of this program, if so desired by the student.

Introduction to Understanding Friends: The Generic Program

Understanding Friends can be presented as a “generic” program. Important concepts and issues will be presented and discussed; however specifics about a particular child or group of children are not brought up. The introduction is a complete program in itself and contains the following three parts. A complete description is given in this article.

Part 1 – Abilities: We are different and we are the same.
Part 2 – Experiential Activity Centers
Part 3 – Receptive Language Demonstration

The program can end here, or you can choose one of the following options.

  1. (OPTION A) Introduction to a specific classroom and students in the school
    After the introductory program, information is shared about a particular class, and its members. This option is highly recommended if students in the school are peer tutors with the students in a specific class, and/or if members of the specific class participate in activities in the general education classroom.
  2. (OPTION B) Understanding your classmate
    After the introductory program, a discussion is facilitated about a specific classmate with ASD. Typically, there are questions (and often misunderstandings) about this student. Depending on the student, he or she may or may not be present for this initial discussion.
  3. (OPTION C) Participation of classmate with ASD
    After the introductory program, a discussion is facilitated with the classmate with ASD. You will structure this as a question-and-answer session that has been planned with the ASD classmate ahead of time.

NOTE ON CONFIDENTIALITY: If you are a teacher who wants to educate your students about autism and how it relates to the classroom environment and their classmate, it must be done with the full permission of the child’s parents. Depending on the age and level of understanding of the child, it is important to have his or her permission as well. There may be individual situations where it may not feel right yet, to a particular family or child. Even beyond the ethics of confidentiality, which obviously apply here, it is imperative that the desires of those parents and student who are hesitant to share such personal information with others, must be respected. In these cases, you would present only the generic program option (below).


  1. Introduction to Understanding Friends: The Generic Program
    Understanding Friends can be presented as a “generic” program. General issues will be presented and discussed, however specifics about a particular child or group of children are not brought up. Adaptations are made depending on the ages of the students. This generic program serves as an introduction if you continue with Options A, B, or C. This introductory and participatory program usually takes about 45-60 minutes.

SET-UP: Arrive ahead of time so you have plenty of time to set up the experiential activity centers. See the Understanding Friends Supply List and Description of Experiential Activities at the bottom of the page for further set-up information.

Part 1 – Abilities: We are different and we are the same

Explain to the class that the purpose of the program is to help them imagine what it might be like to have “different abilities” than they do now; to understand why some people act differently than they might expect. Write the word “ability” on the board and talk about what it means. Write the word “unique” on the board and talk about what it means.

Explain that everyone has different abilities. Say that you want to find out how the students in the class are different. Have them raise their hands in response to questions, such as these:

  • Who can ride a bicycle?
  • Who can roller skate?
  • Who can roller-blade?
  • Who knows the multiplication tables through 5’s?
  • Who knows how to do long division?
  • Who knows the multiplication tables 6’s through 12’s?
  • Who has messy handwriting? (Or who needs more practice with their cursive?)
  • Who has really, really, neat handwriting?
  • Who is good at video games?
  • Who runs in medium or slow speed?
  • Who runs at a very fast speed?
  • Who knows how to knit?
  • Who can make a batch of cookies?
  • Etc…

It is important that not every child answers affirmatively to every question, so you can show diversity. So, for the youngest grades, or if all the students raise their hands for every question, it is best to include concrete questions such as the following.

  • Who has black hair ?
  • Who has blonde hair?
  • Who has brown hair?
  • Who wears glasses?
  • Etc…

Comment on the fact that everyone has different abilities or qualities about themselves that make them unique among others.

Now describe a scene on the playground, and ask…”Have you ever played kickball [or other relevant game] and when it was your turn to kick, you planned to really kick it hard so it would go far…and when the ball was rolled to you, you tried to kick it, but you missed?” You can act this out while you are talking to make it more dramatic. Ask “Who likes it when the other kids say, ‘…don’t worry, try again, it’s okay, you can do it,_…’?” Or who likes it when they say “…don’t be so clumsy, why did you do that?”  Typically, all of the children will raise their hands to agree with wanting to be understood.

Now ask “Who likes it when people understand you?” Questions can also be phrased slightly differently, like “Who wants friends who understand you?” or “Who likes it when other people understand them?”

Comment on the fact that even though everyone has different abilities, talents, and qualities, that we are the same in one basic way; we all want other people to understand us.

If you are doing the generic program, you can begin to explain the activities now. Go directly to Part 2.

If you are going to do OPTION A, say now that you are here to help them understand “about the children in the class in Room ___. “ Now go directly to Part 2, below.

If you are going to do OPTION B or C, say now that you are there to help them “better understand ___________ (their peer), whom I also know.” Now go directly to Part 2.

Part 2 – Experiential Activity Centers: Groups Rotate

Introduce the following activities and have the teacher divide the class into 3 groups. If you have set up 4 experiential activity centers, then the class must be divided into 4 groups. I recommend using three centers. This makes the class and the program more manageable and keeps it within a realistic time-frame. A description of recommended centers are listed at the end of these lesson plans, under Understanding Friends Supply List and Description of Experiential Activities at the bottom of the page.

Introduce each center briefly, holding up the materials at that table. For example, for the activity to simulate fine motor difficulties, you might say: “When you get to the center at the round table, you will wear these big gloves…they are supposed to be too large for you, that’s OK. When you are wearing them, you are supposed to string these beads and then screw these nuts and bolts and washers together. You will find out what it would be like if the muscles in your hands worked differently than they do now.” For older children, you can explain the term “fine motor skills”. Assure them that it is OK to have fun with this, but at the same time, ask them to think seriously about what kinds of things might be harder to do if their fine motor skills were like that. Ask them what might be different for them. How would they (or their work) appear different to others? What kind of assistance might they need by a person or equipment?

Each center should be facilitated by a teacher or other adult. The adult can ask thought-provoking questions during the activity.

You will ring a bell when it is time for the groups to rotate from center to center. Keep this going pretty quickly, in order to hold their interest. After rotating through each center, say that you are now going to pick a student to help you demonstrate something, but it needs to be a student who can follow directions well. You will choose your helper as soon as everyone is back in their seats. This encourages all the students to immediately return to their seats!

Part 3 – Receptive Language Demonstration: “Etimase to trapezi” (“Set the table”)

While the students are returning to their seats, prepare a desk at the front of the room, by placing 10-15 different miscellaneous items on it. Amongst these items should be a plate, cup, spoon, and a fork, scattered about on the desk. Hidden from sight, you will have a piece of cardboard on which an outline of a table setting (plate, cup, spoon, fork) is drawn. Keep this “table-setting outline” hidden for now. Miscellaneous items can be toys, books, pencils, pictures, – a variety of unrelated things.

After choosing a volunteer, have him or her come up and sit at the desk facing the class.

Ask the student if he or she is able to hear you well enough in order to follow your instructions exactly. Tell him that you want him to listen very carefully. Then in the same vocal tone, point to the materials on the desk in front of him and tell him to set the table, but give the instructions in another language. Being familiar with the Greek language, I always use Greek. If you do not know a second language, make sure that ahead of time, you have someone teach you the proper verbal instructions in a foreign language. Obviously, you want to be careful not to choose a volunteer student who might know the language you are using, so choose your volunteer carefully and stay away from a common second-language in your area. (And of course, if you are in Greece, choose a different language!)

Repeat the foreign language instructions slowly, then loudly, then simplify the words. Point to the table and, depending on the age of the student, you can pretend to be impatient. For older students and adults, you can stretch this out. For younger students, keep it short. See my note of CAUTION.

CAUTION: For 5-7 year old children, it is best to keep this part brief. The five and six-year olds, become very self-conscious, nervous, and then miss point of this activity. Often, I will just skip the foreign directions for them, and just show them the table-setting jig. I might say “Can you understand what to do by looking at this picture, even if I do not tell you exactly what to do?” Help as much as possible until the child is successful. Praise the student and have everyone applaud. Let the young volunteer feel good about helping with the demonstration.

FOR OLDER STUDENTS: Eventually, after they cannot figure out what to do from your foreign language instructions, pull out the table-setting outline and show it to the student, laying it on the desk. If he is still confused, point to each of the shapes and indicate which item belongs there. Usually the student gets this immediately and will place the plate, cup, etc, on their outlines. Praise the student and have the class applaud. Ask the student why he did not follow directions when you told him what to do; didn’t he hear what you said? Then explain that there are people who can hear all the words, but cannot make sense out of what is being said, just like it was a foreign language. Ask questions like, “Did you know you were supposed to do something? How did you feel when you couldn’t understand what to do? You did a great job, finally, of setting the table…but how did you know what to do?”

Hold up the cardboard with the table setting pattern, and ask the rest of the class if they would have understood what to do when they saw it. Talk about how some children who may not always understand what is being said, can understand a lot if they can see drawing, outlines, or pictures. They can understand more if they can SEE what to do, instead of just listening. Depending on the grade level, during this discussion you might introduce the terms “language comprehension”, “auditory processing”, and “visual learning”.

Talk about different styles of learning and how some children learn best when they listen, others when they can read, others when they do things, etc.

If you are presenting the Generic Program, the program is now finished. You can end by answering questions about what has happened during the program and conclude by reminding them about how everyone is different, and how everyone is the same. Talk about being unique. You might ask them if they, themselves, have any special learning differences – strengths or weaknesses. If you are going to get more specific, continue with option A, B, or C.

OPTION A: Introduction to a specific class and students

With parent’s permission, mention the students in the specific class. This can be accomplished by bringing in large framed pictures of each child (from their parents) or with a slide show you have prepared ahead of time. At this time, share several pieces of information, briefly, about each child. They are:

  • How many brothers or sisters he or she has.
  • What he is interested in, skilled at, or other unique quality.
  • Something he likes to do (or favorite toy, food, etc…)
  • Something he is learning how to do.
  • And…
  • A suggestion about how they might interact with him…something you know would capture his interest…or that he would respond to…

While you are giving the above information, you can ask for responses that demonstrate what is the same between them and the child you are describing. For example, say “Raise your hand if you have two sisters, too…” or “Raise your hand if you love chocolate ice cream, too”.

Answer questions, if they come up, about each child. Emphasize the positive and the uniqueness. Remind them how everyone is different; and everyone is the same.

OPTION B: Understanding about a specific classmate

For students ages 8 and older, I often present The Sixth Sense II by Carol Gray. It is an excellent way to help students and teachers learn about the perspective-taking abilities as related to many children and adults on the autism spectrum. I will use it if it is appropriate and fits the particular classmate. This program is also very effective with groups of adults, such as staff meetings and parent groups.

For more information about talking about autism and your child, see the appropriate chapters in my book, Autism…What Does It Mean To Me? (Catherine Faherty)

OPTION C: Student with ASD participates

Sometimes, the student with ASD chooses to help with the program. In this case, you would individualize his or her participation based on one-to-one meetings with the student ahead of time. First, show him or her a list with the sequence of information and activities in Understanding Friends. During this planning session(s), assess what it is exactly that the student wants to express to the class. Find out if he or she has something particular in mind. Then, you would structure it within the program. An effective way to do this is to include a Question and Answer Session at the conclusion of the program, during with the student with ASD can answer questions from classmates. You may want to clarify by filling in important information, depending on the student, the class, and the questions from the group. Always include individual strengths as well as what may be challenging for the student. It is best to determine specific questions during your preparatory planning sessions, and the student will prepare his or her answers by writing, typing, or dictating. During the actual program, you can write the questions on the board as they are discussed, also giving a copy of the questions (and the responses) to the student to refer to, or to read aloud, while presenting.

Some students on the spectrum want to be present, and to participate, but do not want to talk. During your planning sessions with the student, I suggest that you view the excellent 16-minute DVD “Intricate Minds” by Coulter Video together. There are two versions of this DVD, one geared for elementary-aged students, the other for middle/high school. These positive and touching DVD’s feature interviews with children and/or teens on the autism spectrum. Some students are inspired to show this to their class, as their way of helping classmates understand them better- without having to speak, themselves. Or together, you may find something on YouTube that is appropriate for the student and situation, sharing what is true for him or her.

Always individualize the student’s participation depending on a multitude of personal factors. The student’s participation can range from simply being present in the room, to physically bringing in the “Intricate Minds” DVD, to answering pre-determined questions, to reading what he has written about himself and/or what he wants to communicate, to showing artwork or comics s/he has created to express something about himself. Or the student may have other ideas of how to share what is personally important.

Follow-up later: Within a week or two, it is often helpful to read a children’s book to the class that deals with the issues of differences, uniqueness, autism, and other related other concepts. Years ago, before there were the excellent children’s book selections we have now, I used to end the program with a reading of Albert Einstein by Ibi Lepscky, especially if the peer with ASD excells in a particular topic or skill.  But my all time favorite book to read to classes when the child may be less verbal and have more overtly puzzling behavior, is Ian’s Walk by Laurie Lears. It does a wonderful job expressing the importance of trying to see things through the eyes of the person with ASD. There are so many good books now, you may have fun searching and finding one that helps to communicate the specific issues important to the student(s) you are working for.

Understanding Friends Supply List and Description of Experiential Activities

For a group of 25-30 students
Here is a description of four different centers you can use. I recommend that you choose only three of the following at any one time, to keep the program within a realistic time-frame (45-60 minutes).

Fine Motor Activity

8 pairs of large cloth garden gloves
8 sets of shoestrings and beads, each in a small tub
8 sets of hardware (nut, bolt, washer), each in a small tub
Table with 8 chairs

Each child wears the gloves and tries to string beads and assemble hardware.
Hint: For K-1 students, have them just wear one glove and use large beads.

Visual Activity

8 pairs of safety goggles
Jar of petroleum jelly (to smear on lenses of goggles) or sandpaper to scratch lens
8 pencils and pads of lined paper
Books at grade level
Table with 8 chairs

Each child wear goggles (with obstructed view because of petroleum jelly or scratched lenses). Try to write sentences on the lines and read the print in a book.
Hint: Do not let children take off goggles until they are done.

Perceptual and Sensory (Tactile) Activities

Roll of masking tape and binoculars:
Place a length of tape on the floor and have children walk on the line. Have each child hold the binoculars on their eyes, backwards. This causes perception to be distorted.

Several strips of yarn, 4-feet in length:
Have child jump rope using the yarn, instead of a rope. This causes the feeling of distorted perception of the weight of the “rope”.

Garden glove with Velcro sewn on to inside of fingers and palm; and
A large handful of lambs-wool or a feather duster:
You wear the scratchy glove and hold the soft feathers or wool. While children are participating in the above activities, walk by and touch a bare arm. Simulates unpredictable sensation on the skin (either too scratchy or uncomfortably soft!)

Attention and Sensory (Auditory) Activity

8 pairs of headphones hooked up to a Listening Station
Cassette tape of static-noise or noisy crowd sounds
Worksheets at slightly higher grade level – requires concentration
8 pencils
Table with 8 chairs

Students wear headphones and have to listen to noises in their ears. They must complete the worksheets within a given time. Simulates difficulty focusing on work while not being able to filter out distractions.