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Collaboration Conundrum: Mastering Group Projects At School and Beyond

Autism Society National Conference 
July 10-13, 2013

David L. Lawrence Convention Center
Pittsburgh, PA

Title: Collaboration Conundrum: Mastering Group Projects At School and Beyond
Content Area: Social Skills
Target Audience: Adolescence and Adulthood
Understanding Level: Intermediate

Description: Schools and workplaces embrace collaboration, assuming that groups engaged in brainstorming, crowdsourcing, and agile development produce better ideas than individuals. Although new scholarship raises questions about the benefits of collaboration (Cain 2012), our cultural bias towards extroversion and social interaction means navigating collaborative projects is an important life skill for autistic students and adults. Schools claim to appreciate different learning styles, but they overlook different social styles. This presentation explores how autistic people can succeed in collaborative settings.

Content Plan: Collaboration Conundrum: Mastering Group Projects At School and Beyond
Social skill deficits and communication challenges are among the traits associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Unfortunately, many educational practices and business models rely on advanced social skills and interpersonal communication. For autistic individuals, the collaborative nature of classrooms and workplaces presents an obstacle to success. Group work is a puzzle without an obvious solution many with ASDs. How we address the collaboration conundrum in our classrooms and offices might determine if we offer autistics inclusion or alienation.

While researching ways to design more inclusive college classes, I heard heartbreaking recollections of autistic students failing courses primarily because of collaborative assignments. University and college instructors told me that collaboration was “non-negotiable” and “mandatory” in some courses. Because these were required general education courses, the collaboration policies created an impenetrable barrier for some autistic students. Autistic adults have shared stories of workplaces that resembled these classrooms, with “team spirit” emphasized over any measurable results. A culture that celebrates social interactions, regardless of the actual value generated by groups, labels individuals as “failures” for lacking social skills.

During this presentation, participants will:
  • Understand why schools and companies perceive group projects as valuable;
  • Learn strategies for collaboration that accommodate autistic traits;
  • Learn the benefits of collaborative technologies;
  • Explore how autistic students and workers can succeed in collaborative settings; and
  • Advocate for different, research-based approaches to collaboration.
The presentation begins with an overview of why in-person collaboration has come to dominate pedagogical theories. Appreciating why we assume face-to-face and “synchronous” group discussion are more productive than other methods of collaboration helps us form arguments for alternative approaches. Groups talking around a table—often past each other—is a cultural norm, not a universally proven collaborative method.

Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, examines the cultural and theoretical biases that favor charming extroverts over other individuals. Cain and other scholars raise questions about the benefits of group work as practiced throughout our society.  The American cultural bias towards extroversion and social interaction means navigating collaborative projects is an important life skill for autistic students and adults. Schools claim to appreciate different learning styles, but they overlook different social styles.

As a professor, I teach my courses alone. I have the support of a department and a school, with colleagues available to help and guide me, but I create a syllabus to reflect my strengths and I teach the course. Yet, we insist on gathering our students into "teams" and make them engage in face-to-face group work, which might be the least effective method for collaborating. Even when professors are collaborating on research, the process is nothing like what we ask of our students.

Writing in the New York Times, Cain illustrated the zealous dedication to collaboration in classrooms:
Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question. (Cain 2012)
After an overview of how current approaches of collaboration came to dominate our classrooms and offices, the presentation offers basic strategies to help individuals with ASDs participate in group projects. The strategies include written agendas, publicly shared schedules, and formal procedures for resolving disagreements. Creating constraints that help guide a group aids everyone, not only the team member with an ASD.

Working with individuals with ASDs, attention deficit disorders, and other executive challenges, I have found technology offers more opportunities for success. Using email, online calendars, and content management systems, team members can interact asynchronously. This means each member participates when, where, and how he or she is more comfortable. The ability to consider ideas and suggestions without social distractions benefits all project participants. Traditional meetings allow strong personalities to dominate discussions, while online forums equalize individuals. Best of all, technology can accommodate special needs with greater flexibility than physical meeting spaces.

Autistic students and employees can succeed if their teachers and supervisors come to appreciate different social styles should be treated respectfully. Our schools and workplaces embrace collaboration, assuming that groups engaged in brainstorming, consensus design, and agile development produce better ideas and products. What we must do is explain that alternative approaches to collaboration might better achieve the desired results.

The presentation concludes with a discussion of how we can advocate for asynchronous, technology-enhanced approaches to collaboration. The Wikibooks project, which seeks to compile peer-review quality academic content via collaboration, provides one example. Many online discussion forums also embody effective collaboration.

Many autistic teens and adults do participate in online activities, from academic discussion forums to multiplayer games. While social and communication challenges exist online, the success of autistic individuals in virtual spaces provides evidence that technology-based collaboration offers accommodation and inclusion.

Learning Objective(s):
  • Understand why schools and companies perceive group projects as valuable.
  • Learn strategies for collaboration that accommodate autistic traits.
  • Advocate for different, research-based approaches to collaboration.
  • Learn the benefits of collaborative technologies.
Christopher S. Wyatt, Ph.D.

Biographical Sketch: As an autistic individual and professor, Christopher has experienced the challenges classrooms and workplaces present to individuals with ASDs. His research has led to strategies for success in college courses and designs for more accommodating virtual spaces.


  1. Wow, such a great point. Focusing on different learning styles is in just about every classroom, however, understanding and accepting different social styles is not acceptable. This made me think of something that came up just last week. I was informed by an office staff, that our Administrator does not want our students to give knuckles when they greet people. She said the students must either say hello (or another greeting) or shake hands. If they can’t do either one of those then they should bow to the other person. I personally have a huge problem with this. Many of my students (I teach young adults with moderate to severe disabilities, including some specifically with autism) cannot speak and have been taught knuckles as an appropriate way to greet someone. I feel like those who are not in the classroom are so disconnected to whom our students are and what they are capable of doing.

    I agree 100% that school are not supporting social learning styles. I recall attending a college several years ago and every course and group work. As you mentioned, the teacher said this was non-negotiable. While I do not have autism I still had a very hard time with this. I can only imagine how those with autism feel. I am so thankful that more people are becoming aware of autism and I hope that we, as a society, will continue to enlighten others on the characteristics of autism in order to help these individuals be successful.

    Thanks for sharing.


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