The National Autistic Society Autism Helpline often receives calls from parents and carers asking about ways of promoting inclusion and interaction with peers, for their child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

This information sheet provides a brief overview of a strategy called the Circle of Friends approach, which is used mainly in mainstream schools. 

Background

The Circle of Friends approach originated in North America as one of a range of strategies to promote the inclusion into mainstream school of students with disabilities and difficulties (Whitaker et al, 1998). It was also developed to support the process of including people with disabilities in local communities where they had previously lived in institutions (Forest & Lusthaus, 1989). The Circle of Friends approach recognises that a child who displays distressed and difficult behaviours is likely to suffer from isolation from their peer group, both in and out of school (Newton et al, 1996). This isolation or rejection can damage the child's sense of self but acceptance and friendship can foster growth and enable the child, in turn, to contribute to the school community to which they belong (Whitaker et al 1998).

The Circle of Friends approach is often used to assist children with an ASD to develop their social and communication skills, as this is an area in which they will often have difficulties. As Howlin (1998) states, one of the most difficult and demanding tasks for children with autism is learning how to interact appropriately with children of their own age. As a result of these difficulties, individuals on the spectrum may lack the necessary skills to understand that friendships are based on mutual empathy and shared understanding (Leicester City Council & Leicestershire County Council, 1998). An individual with an ASD may be aware of his or her own difficulties and find it stressful and frustrating when their continuing attempts to make or maintain a friendship are not successful (Leicester City Council & Leicestershire County Council, 1998).

Circle of Friends is becoming a more widely used approach within UK schools and, unlike other interventions, is not based on ignoring difficult behaviour (Newton et al, 1996). It encourages the development of a support network for the child in focus within a structured setting, which can also extend beyond that setting. Those in the peer group are encouraged to look at their own behaviour and also to develop an understanding of the focus childs behaviour and difficulties in order to develop strategies and practical solutions to help the individual. It is not an approach to provide instant friendship, but over the course of meetings and the evaluation of set targets, it is hoped that the focus child will be able to build closer and better relationships with other children (Barratt et al).

Aims of the Circle of Friends

Barrett et al outline the four main aims of Circle of Friends as:

  • creating a support network for the focus child
  • providing the child with encouragement and recognition for any achievements and progress
  • working with the child to identify difficulties and devising practical ideas to help deal with these difficulties
  • helping to put these ideas into practice.

Who needs to be involved in the Circle of Friends?

Barratt et al suggest the following sequence of cooperation and consent in order to reduce the risk of needlessly investing time and the risk of raising and dashing hopes.

Usually, the suggestion to use the Circle of Friends in a chosen school will be made by the school's special needs coordinator (SENCO) or by the school's educational psychologist. Once it has been suggested, it is necessary to discuss this with either the Headteacher or a head of department. It is important that they are aware of the approach and agree to it being implemented before it is established. Schools are normally chosen because they have a suitable supportive ethos and can commit to setting up and continuing the circle.

The next step is for the school to discuss using the approach with the parents/carers of the focus child and to gain consent from them. It is important that parents understand clearly how their child will be involved and what the aims of Circle of Friends are. Parents need to inform the school whether their child is aware of their diagnosis and whether they are willing for the class group to be informed of their childs diagnosis. However, it is not essential for the class to know of the child's diagnosis for it to run effectively. Circle of Friends can still be used even though the child may be unaware of their diagnosis. The peer group will be focusing on the child's difficulties and behaviour, and not on the difficulties that children with an ASD are expected to have.

Once permission from the parents of the focus child has been granted, it will then be necessary to talk to the child about using the approach. The Circle of Friends can only be established if the focus child consents to it. The adult who is responsible for explaining Circle of Friends to the child needs to do this in a subjective manner. The adult will need to explain it in a way that ensures the child understands how it will be set up and who will be involved, but the child must not be misguided into expecting unrealistic outcomes from the group. A child may respond with a positive or negative reaction to the proposal. They may focus on high expectations of what the Circle of Friends may offer, or by contrast may not focus on what the group is about at all, but rather on missing part of a favourite lesson or break time in order for the group to be established. It is useful for both parents and school staff to talk to the child about their involvement in the group and to remain open to any questions that the child may ask in order to understand it fully.

It is also necessary for the parents of the volunteer circle members to be informed about their child's involvement in the suggested Circle of Friends. This is in order to provide an explanation about the approach, to inform them that outside agencies (educational psychologists/autism outreach workers or other professionals) will be involved in setting up the circle, and to give parents the option not to involve their child in the Circle.

Setting up a Circle of Friends

Initially, the whole class will meet without the focus child being present. This meeting will usually be chaired by an outsider (eg an educational psychologist) and will focus on the child's strengths and difficulties so that the class can discuss and empathise with them and share their own experiences of friendships (Whitaker et al 1998). The adult conducting this meeting is required to listen and to respect the responses of the children in the class, allowing them to express the difficulties that the focus child has without feeling that they are being nasty or rude to the child. This is important for the children to share, as often these can be the barriers that prevent the focus child from interacting well and having positive friendships with peers.

The next step is to recruit the volunteers who will form the Circle of Friends. This normally comprises of six to eight children. The class needs to be informed of what a Circle of Friends is. They need to know that they will meet on a weekly basis for approximately 20 to 30 minutes, and if they feel that they would like to opt out of the circle at any time they are free to do so. Once the children in the class have decided whether they wish to volunteer, the school staff need to decide who will form the group. If possible, it is beneficial to keep a balance between children who are very able and those who need more support. Once this decision has been made, parents need to be informed of their childs wish to be involved.

The first meeting of the Circle of Friends needs to be prepared so that there is enough time available and all members of the circle can attend. It is important that there are no distractions in this meeting. The focus child will be present at the meeting and may possibly be quite anxious or over-excited about the group.  It is helpful to prepare the focus child for this beforehand by giving a start and finish time, and to explain whether it is a break time that they will be missing or if it is in the place of part of a lesson. Rules of the group need to be made and confidentiality needs must be explained to the group and understood. It is useful for the circle to establish a name for itself - but without using the focus child's name as part of this. The circle needs to agree on realistic aims and make these clear to the focus child. It can be beneficial for the volunteers to give an explanation for their reasons for volunteering, especially as they may not be part of the usual peer group of the focus child. A summary is given from the discussion with the whole class and the circle establishes what the positive attributes of the focus child are, and which areas they will be working on. The focus child may wish to add to their own list of positive attributes. When looking at problem behaviour it is necessary to turn each one into a positive target, focussing on what the child should be doing. The circle must agree on which strategies to try and commit to supporting them. The first meeting is then summarised and a date is set for when the next meeting will take place.

It is important that the adult present at this meeting is there as a facilitator rather than to control the meeting, so that the peers and focus child understand that the Circle of Friends is about peers supporting peers, and that they are working together and sharing a sense of responsibility. The facilitator needs to encourage mutual support, trust, honesty and openness among the group members (Newton et al 1996). Depending on the age of the group, the meeting may need to be given a more definite structure. Younger children, who may not be used to group discussion and participation, may require directed questions allowing them to comment and may need encouragement to understand the rules of turn taking and listening. 

The subsequent weekly meeting for the circle will follow a similar structure. It will normally begin with a warm-up exercise that can be devised by the group. The group will then talk about good news related to the focus child. They will be asked about situations involving the child that went well, either involving or witnessed by the circle peer group. They will then ask about what the child said or did in the situation and will discuss how the participants felt about this. They will also look at the targets set at the previous meeting and ask if there was any success in working towards these. The circle will then look at any bad news, examining the barriers to reaching the set targets, discussing and sharing ideas for solutions to these barriers and highlighting any other problems that may have arisen. It is a good idea not use the word bad as this may sound too negative.

The next step of the meeting is setting this weeks targets for the circle. These may be the same as the previous week, or may be adapted or completely new targets. The group will then discuss and share any new ideas that haven't already been mentioned to help meet these targets and then plan how they will do this. They will need to agree responsibility and action for the weeks targets. The focus child needs to have input and be allowed to express his or her feelings about both the good and bad news. They may feel that certain strategies are not suitable for them or need adapting.

There can sometimes be a problem with the members of the circle becoming de-motivated and feeling that they are not getting anything back from the involvement and support they are giving to the focus child. It is important that all children in the circle are given continued recognition for their time and effort and have the opportunity to discuss this openly within the group. Occasionally it may be necessary for the focus child not to attend a meeting (perhaps when they are not receptive to the support and help given). The volunteers may feel quite negative if their help is rejected and may need the opportunity to express this without the focus child being there. Often the group may set ambitious and unrealistic targets and may feel disappointed when these are not met. The facilitator needs to encourage the setting of achievable and realistic targets and talk to other members of staff to ensure that the strategies and targets are suitable and supported by all. It is often useful to refer back to the original aims of the circle so that the volunteers and focus child are reminded why they meet and what the purpose of the Circle of Friends is.

Examples of behaviour problems and suggested strategies

Adults reading information about Circle of Friends may question the ability of the children in the circle to be able to devise strategies that help the focus child's behaviour. In the study by Newton et al (1996) of their experience of setting up Circle of Friends, they were very impressed by the quality of rich discussion and process that took place in such circles. They were also impressed by simple strategies that were devised by the children to help a focus child. Examples they gave to highlight this included:

...we just follow him out of the room and quietly ask him to come back...

...we saw him getting angry with the dinner lady... we went and started talking to him... told him it was not worth it... he walked away...

...we've invented a three tap code... If he starts talking on the carpet one of us taps the floor near him then he shuts up.

What are the outcomes of using the Circle of Friends?

In studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of the Circle of Friends, there have been positive outcomes not only for the focus child, but also for the volunteers in the group.

A study by Whitaker et al (1998) looked at the establishment of six circles in Leicestershire and described the process of setting up and evaluating the circles. Facilitators found that the circles resulted in improved social integration and higher levels of peer contact. They commented that the contact between the focus child and the peer group was more frequent and the quantity of this contact was higher. This was thought to be due to the child having an increased desire to make contact and also reduced anxiety about making that contact. Some of the focus children generally showed lower levels of anxiety and seemed to be happier and more relaxed. They also noted success with the targets set to tackle specific behaviour problems. In this particular study, there was only one drawback observed - two of the focus children showed increased egocentricity. This may be due to the children lacking understanding of the needs of others and being unable to pick up on any growing resentment towards them because of this.

Schools have also noticed positive outcomes from using this approach and the focus child may also be aware of the benefits of having a Circle of Friends. In one case study, a boy in a Year 6 class was described by his teacher before having a Circle of Friends as having major temper tantrums and no co-operation, amongst other difficulties (Newton et al 1996). The negatives listed by his peer group included: being physically and verbally aggressive, losing his temper quickly and bullying. After having a Circle of Friends, a circle member said that the boy was like a very good person now and his teacher described the approach as being very successful. The focus child also said that everybody feels closer. When at secondary school he was asked to join another child's circle and admitted I used to have a Circle because I used to hit and bite and I had no friends, but now I don't and I've got friends. (Newton et al, 1996).

In another study, a ten year old boy with an ASD was noted to have made significant improvements in being able to cope with social relationships (Eddas, 2002). The child stated of himself: "I felt lonely and got picked on a lot before I joined. Now I have joined, I get along with more people, even outside the group." (Eddas, 2002).

As mentioned, the approach can also have positive outcomes for the volunteers who join the circle and can be a rich learning experience for them (Newton et al, 1996). Being a member of the circle can increase their level of empathy as they become more aware of the focus child's difficulties and improve their understanding (Whitaker et al, 1998). It has been noted by some facilitators that it can boost the volunteers' self-esteem by giving them a sense of competence and pride over their efforts in supporting another child. It was also noted that it could improve their ability to engage in productive group discussion. In the study by Whitaker et al (1998) the facilitators also noted that there were benefits for individual members of the circles. One teacher commented on their shifted perspective about a pupil with emotional and behavioural difficulties as a result of seeing his sensitive and enthusiastic participation in the circle. They also noticed improved behaviour in another pupil and noticed that two other children who were very quiet became more confident as a result of contributing to the circle.

As with any suggested strategy there can be no guarantees or promises in relation to its outcome and level of success. In one study (see Brolic et al, 2002) it was felt that the Circle of Friends needed to be adapted for a focus child. Among other changes, it was decided that the child in question would not attend the Circle meetings initially.

However, with a high level of support and understanding from all involved, the Circle of Friends could be a suitable approach for helping a child with an ASD develop an understanding of their behaviour and the effect of it has on others. The circle may help them develop a much needed support network in school and, with encouragement from their peers, develop and use new strategies to tackle their problems in school.

Useful resources

A suggested lesson plan for explaining Asperger syndrome to children is available on the NAS website as part of a Teachers' Awareness Pack: www.autism.org.uk/teacherpack

An information sheet entitled Asperger Syndrome in your Classroom aimed primarily at secondary school-aged students is also available from the Autism Helpline or Information Centre.

There are also a number of books available aimed at explaining ASD to children:

Doherty, K., McNally, P. and Sherrard, E. (2000). I have Autism - Whats that? Antrim: Down Lisburn Trust 
This cheerful book helps children and young people with autism to discover how they are different from neuro-typical people. Written in straightforward language and illustrated with helpful and amusing pin men, it explores different approaches to talking, playing and learning and offers coping strategies.

Murrell, D. (2001). Tobin learns to make friends. Arlington: Future Horizons Inc.
Illustrated in full colour, this book helps young children with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism to learn the rules of friendship. It is the story of a train that finds it difficult to make and keep friends because he invades their personal space and doesn't take turns in games. A delightful book with a happy ending for children 4 - 9 years.

Vermeulen, P. (2000). I am special: introducing children and young people to their autistic spectrum disorder. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Aimed at young people over the age of ten who have an autism spectrum disorder, this workbook is designed to be worked through with an adult - parent, teacher or other professional. The content and layout are devised especially for children who process information differently.

NAS Autism Helpline. (2001). What is Asperger syndrome and how will it affect me? London: The National Autistic Society
Aimed at 8-13 year olds, this excellent booklet explains Asperger syndrome in simple jargon-free language for children with Asperger syndrome. It also offers helpful contacts and strategies for making life more comfortable.

References / recommended reading

Brozic, N., Croft, A. and Mason-Williams, T. (2002). A peer support project for an eight -year- old boy with an autistic spectrum disorder: an adaptation and extension of Circle of Friends approach. Good Autism Practice 3, 1, pp22-31

Eddas, M. (2002). Circles of friends: a qualitative study of this technique with a ten-year-old child with an autistic spectrum disorder. Good Autism Practice 3, 1, pp31-36

Forest, M., & Lusthaus, E. (1989). Promoting educational equality for all students: Circles and maps. In S. Stainback, W. Stainback, & M. Forest (Eds.), Educating all students in the mainstream of regular education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes

Howlin, P. (1998). Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome. West Sussex: John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

Leicester City Council and Leicestershire County Council, (1998). Asperger syndrome - practical strategies for the classroom. London: The National Autistic Society

Newton, C., Taylor, G. and Wilson, D. (1996). Circles of friends. An Inclusive approach to meeting emotional and behavioural difficulties. In: Educational Psychology in Practice, 11, pp41-48

Whitaker, P. et al (1998). Children with autism and peer group support: using circles of friends, In: British Journal of Special Education, 25, pp60-64

The following link is to the website of The Autism Outreach Team at Leicestershire County Council. They are part of the LEAs specialist teaching service and provide further guidance and procedures for those who wish to set up a Circle of Friends. This website includes the work by Barratt et al.
www.leics.gov.uk/index/education/special_education_needs/
specialist_teaching_service/service_teams/autism_outreach_team/
autism_team_resources/circle_of_friends.htm#contents