Opportunity for All: Successful membership in the National Honor Societies for students on the autism spectrum

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more people than ever before are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a report from March 2016. Of course, teachers knew this long before any government report; they knew because IEPs pile up on their desks and autism advocates solicit their donations and time. Even television presents images, accurate or otherwise, of persons on the autism spectrum. From Max Braverman on the TV show “Parenthood” to Sherlock Holmes, characters with ASD have gained positive recognition on the small screen.

National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society chapters should provide the same positive recognition for academically qualified hard-working students with ASD. After all, students on the spectrum can be found running charity marathons, earning their Eagle Scout rank, and holding down jobs. They carry the same responsibilities that neurotypical NHS/NJHS members do. Yet even after succeeding in service, leadership, and academics, students with ASD may experience significant hurdles to successful participation in the National Honor Societies. Advisers can help students with ASD become productive members using these 10 practical strategies.

Tip 1: Search high and low for student leaders. When selecting NHS/NJHS members, be careful not to limit your focus on their involvement in organizations with student-selected leadership. That strategy effectively excludes students who are socially awkward or socially phobic, including many with ASD. Make sure you don’t overlook students whose service is primarily individual—perhaps the library aide, the calculus tutor, or that charity runner. Their self-discipline and intrinsic motivation are real assets to the National Honor Societies. For students on the spectrum who have small group or individual service experience, large group service in NHS and NJHS provides an opportunity to learn and grow while moving beyond isolated efforts to cooperative ones.

Tip 2: Embrace routine. Change and unpredictability are stressful for students with ASD. Meet in the same room at the same time every week. Send an agenda prior to each meeting, and adhere to that agenda. Students on the spectrum may experience discomfort during the unstructured socializing that sometimes overwhelms high school meetings. Don’t eliminate socializing, but respect the start time of NHS/NJHS business. At the agreed time, gently but promptly conclude the friendly chatter and begin the meeting. Meeting schedules need not be excessively rigid, but routine will make the meetings more productive, especially for students with ASD. Since the National Honor Societies include student leaders from a variety of clubs and programs, embracing routine at NHS/NJHS can benefit many school organizations. In turn, the spread of good planning into other student organizations makes them more productive and more welcoming to students on the autism spectrum.

Tip 3: Facilitate oral and written communication. Students with autism spectrum disorder often find speaking up difficult, so actively support them in expressing opinions to their peers. Be especially watchful during policy- and decision-making discussions, especially right before a vote, to make sure that all voices are being heard. Do National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society members make public presentations to their school’s student body, faculty, or board? If members make public announcements, then take time to quickly rehearse those speeches at your meetings.

Also, encourage members of the Honor Societies, especially those with ASD, to be proactive in written communication to faculty, administrators, and parents so they’re keeping all NHS stakeholders well informed. Model the writing of business letters, informational emails, and thank-you notes, and make students responsible for carrying out those communication tasks. The oral and written communication skills honed in NHS/NJHS can be invaluable, especially to members on the spectrum.


Tip 4: Make “service” concrete.
A characteristic of ASD is difficulty envisioning abstract ideas such as service. This struggle may persist even if the student with ASD routinely serves others. Providing clear examples of what constitutes service and requiring a specific number of service hours will help members with ASD serve successfully in the National Honor Societies. Members can survey faculty and staff about service needs in the school community. Have members encourage survey respondents to include every need they observe, whether or not they imagine NHS or NJHS can fulfill it. Use the survey responses to create an inventory of service options for members. Discuss the list during meetings to uncover service needs that can be fulfilled by specific students’ unique talents. For example, when a guest presentation is scheduled for the school, an NHS/NJHS member with excellent tech skills could familiarize the presenter with the school’s projectors, SMART boards, microphones, etc., and help the presenter connect to and use those electronics. That’s not a traditional food drive, but it is an important service to the school community.

Tip 5: Don’t assume experience. Students with ASD are sometimes protected or excluded from commonplace experiences and may need guidance to participate fully in them. When the chapter wants to do a seemingly ordinary fundraiser (a raffle, car wash, or bake sale), don’t assume all the members understand how that activity works. Guide more experienced students in introducing their fellow NHS/NJHS members to new tasks, such as vacuuming cars at the car wash or baking cookies in the consumer science room. For students with ASD, be prepared to outline each activity step by step and to role-play the important steps, especially those that require people skills. For instance, have students model being the curmudgeon to whom members must sell raffle tickets or the crank who finds spots on his windshield. Help students prepare to face challenges with resilience and good humor.

Tip 6: Don’t assume the second step. Moving from the first step of a project to the second step of a project seems obvious to a neurotypical adult. For example: (step 1) Going to a LEAD Conference means (step 2) raising travel money. (step 1) Sponsoring a spring dance means (step 2) finding chaperones. Easy, right?

But the second step may not be obvious to a student on the autism spectrum. Be prepared to walk him or her carefully through the implications of his or her choices. Ideally this step-by-step process should be a natural part of the large group meeting, but sometimes it may require individual guidance. Whether coaching a group or an individual member, each adviser must be very clear about the second step that follows an initial decision.

For example, a small NHS chapter volunteered for a service project with young children. Because the service project would require all students to help, the adviser was delighted to see a unanimous “yes” vote. However, when one student’s turn to serve came, he refused, not having fully understood that (step 1) a “yes” vote to his chapter’s service to children implied (step 2) willingness to actually work with young children. When a student overlooks the implications of his or her choices, be ready to coach him or her to understanding.

And always, always be transparent about step 2.

Tip 7: Open a window to the social world. Students with ASD will rarely (or never) just “catch on” to the informal rules of social interaction. The NHS/NJHS adviser may need to nurture friendships and troubleshoot awkwardness or misunderstandings of member interactions. Resist the assumption that those students who take AP classes together are automatically friends. Encourage friendly relationships between group members; offer brief icebreakers, silly recognitions, or quick games to enable interaction. Feelings may be easily hurt by student traditions—not because they deliberately exclude students with ASD, but because the invitation to participate is unspoken. Be prepared to deconstruct such social activities for students with ASD, even in situations that seem obvious to you. For example, if NHS seniors always order pizza on Friday afternoons, be prepared to casually mention to a member with ASD, “You’re a senior now, so don’t forget to bring pizza money on Friday.” Demystifying the social world prevents feelings of awkwardness and even ostracism in vulnerable students.


Tip 8: Troubleshoot.
Sometimes, well-planned group processes and casual interactions aren’t enough. If an NHS/NJHS member with ASD is still struggling to participate effectively, take time for a personal “gut check,” then meet privately with that student to discuss challenges and offer guidance. The gut check should include an honest look at your own concerns and beliefs about students on the autism spectrum. One widespread assumption is that students with ASD are members of a model disability characterized by good math skills and little romantic drama. Another common belief is that students’ misunderstanding of social cues or second steps is based in deliberate inattention or low motivation. Avoid letting such misconceptions color the advisory relationship with a unique student. Instead, do a little research.

In a large school, a student with ASD may be a near-stranger to the NHS or NJHS adviser. Inquire about the individual’s concerns and sensitivities before the one-on-one meeting. Colleagues may provide insights and suggest interventions that will facilitate a constructive meeting. Seek the advice of parents and counselors, too; they’ll have useful insights into advising that particular student.

When meeting with an NHS/NJHS member on the autism spectrum, stick to a relaxed chat rather than a formal conference. Many students on the autism spectrum find eye contact difficult to sustain, so sit beside the student, looking together at meeting notes, rather than sitting across from the student or behind your desk. Or don’t sit at all. Walk and talk. Request the student’s help with a small task, for instance, carrying books to your car. Working together while talking often results in unforced communication. If there are action steps for the adviser and student, cheerfully and concisely restate those steps at the end of your meeting. Confirm those steps in an encouraging follow-up email after the meeting.

Tip 9: Accept failure cheerfully. Members of the National Honor Societies, both neurotypical students and those with ASD, are often seen as so accomplished that others forget they are vulnerable, fallible teenagers. Remember, they may fail and fail spectacularly. Kids feud over offices, forget posters, or leave bake sale money on the bus. Students on the autism spectrum often have undeveloped communication skills, so they may muddle the superintendent’s introduction or the fundraiser justification. The more daring and interesting students’ goals are, the more chances they have to fail.

The adviser can mitigate the pain of failure without denying members’ autonomy. The adviser’s responsibility is to prepare them for the tasks, warn them of the pitfalls, and if they fail, show them how to make amends and survive mistakes. Because students with ASD can be rigid in their beliefs and goals, they often take failure harder than other members might. If students with ASD believe that they have disappointed the group or adviser, the adviser must remember that they can’t easily read forgiveness and understanding in facial expressions. Be especially careful to reassure students on the spectrum that their mistakes don’t mean they are no longer valued members of the NHS/NJHS community. Failure means daring to try, and that should be considered a triumph in and of itself, especially for a student on the autism spectrum.

Tip 10: Enjoy advising all your members. By employing these simple strategies, each NHS/NJHS adviser can help students on the autism spectrum enjoy successful participation and service. With well-informed advisers, students on the autism spectrum will flourish in an organization that allows them to serve others without being objects of curiosity or special exception. At the same time, neurotypical students will share positive experiences with a broader set of peers. Both groups will be better prepared for successful cooperation in the neurodiverse worlds of college, community, and the workplace. —


Laura Nelson Selinsky is an English teacher and NHS adviser at Hill Top Preparatory School in Rosemont, PA.