With Open Arms: Creating a Supportive School Community for Kids with Social Challenges
Mark, the beautiful boy with Asperger Syndrome (AS) whose fascination with dinosaurs makes him sound like an expert far older than his six years, has meltdowns at school several times a week. Emily, a 10th-grader with AS, becomes animated every time she talks about the book series Twilight and its recent film adaptation. But she seems oblivious to the bored nods of peers who try to avoid getting “trapped” in conversation with her. And Luke, the mathematical genius with AS, reluctantly has to tear himself away from his calculus book every time his resource teacher forces him to converse with those around him. On the one hand, the adults who care for these children with autism spectrum disorders stand in awe and appreciation of their gifts and talents. On the other, they worry that the peers in the world in which they spend much of their time—school—never see past their odd behaviors. Indeed, these misunderstood children are ignored at best, and more often than not are the objects of ridicule and bullying. Peer education and Circle of Friends can be important steps in establishing a positive social environment for children with social challenges.
In my practice as a special education teacher in a public school inclusion program, I have found that once peers have been educated on the characteristics of these special-needs kids, they usually want to help. Initially, parents may want to protect their child’s privacy by not pointing out the fact that he or she is different. After all, their strengths are obvious; can’t everyone appreciate their child they way they do? Sadly, this is usually not the case with peers who shun anyone who doesn’t fit the usual mold. Without peer awareness, the students who need the most social interaction practice often end up getting the least.
If you have a child you think could benefit from peer education, here are some tips:
- Try to get your child’s individualized education program (IEP) manager on board. He/she would probably be willing, but just hasn’t thought about it. Parents can also volunteer to read a book to the class and answer questions.
- If you are staff member, always get permission from the parents first before beginning a peer education lesson.
- Start the lesson by pointing out that everyone has strengths and challenges. Have all children share some of their own.
- Then use one of the many wonderful juvenile resources available to you. Some of these titles include: This is Asperger Syndrome by Elisa Gagnon and Brenda Smith Myles, Jackson Whole Wyoming by Joan Clark, In His Shoes by Joanna L. Keating-Velasco and Amazingly Alphie by Roz Espin. There are many more; just choose an age-appropriate book depending on the peer group with whom you’re working.
- Share the book, and then follow up with a question-and-answer period.
- Allow children to brainstorm ways they can positively interact with the child with social challenges, and give them safe avenues to report bullying.
Circle of Friends
In our school, after peer education, we have found it beneficial to then form peer mentor groups of 8-10 students called a Circle of Friends. A Circle of Friends is a group of peers willing to interact on a daily basis with a child with social challenges. Basic guidelines for a Circle of Friends include:
- Choose peer mentors who are in the same classes/activities as the child, ride the bus with him or her, or have the same lunch period.
- Choose peers of both sexes.
- If possible, find one or two peers who have similar areas of interest.
- Have regular meetings. There are two kinds of meetings with two separate purposes: Meetings with the child who has AS are for socializing. Meetings without the child are to get feedback from the peer mentors and teach them how to interact appropriately with the child.
- Teach and practice conversation skills with all of the children.
- Start a book club, which is a great activity for the peer mentors to learn more about students with special needs.
One may think peer education and Circle of Friends are just extra tasks for already overworked adults to add to their “to do” list, but they should look at it this way. They can spend time proactively creating an accepting environment where children who are different have the opportunity to interact with peers throughout the day, or spend time cleaning up “messes” and denying these children the opportunity to develop the skills they will need to become productive adults. Either way, time is spent. And that aside, what could be more rewarding than to see a child with autism looking forward to coming to school, sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch at a table with other students, or even having a conversation by a locker, just like anyone else?
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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