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.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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