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Typical Teen, Atypical Peer

Noblesville Student Volunteers to Get Social

March 2013

Ian Medley began helping kids with autism when he was 11. Now a sophomore at Noblesville High School, Ian works with the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism a few times a week to help develop social skills of kids who have the disorder. For him, it was a personal decision to volunteer. It helps him better understand his brother.

Noah, Ian's 15-year-old brother, has autism and Ian knows one day he will be Noah's primary caregiver. Ian already feels the enormity of this looming responsibility and is doing what he can to form a relationship with Noah now. He wants to better understand autism, a complex developmental disorder he may not have but with which he will likely always live.

This is a path Ian's dad Jeff has encouraged. It's due in large part to his strong desire to secure a trustworthy caregiver to look after Noah when he and Noah's mom are no longer able to.

"We try to instill that his mom and I aren't going to be around forever, so at some point Noah's going to need a caregiver more his age. Ian, being the oldest sibling, is likely going to be that person," said Jeff, who hopes other families in similar circumstances consider taking the same approach.

Ian believes his work is helping others and notices his interactions make the kids with whom he works seem happier. He knows by their laughs and smiles. Besides, he says if the kids don't enjoy a particular activity they are doing together, they just stop. It's that simple.

The type of work Ian puts in at BACA is something experts recognize as beneficial for some kids with autism.

Janine Shapiro, speech language pathologist and board certified behavior analyst with the Applied Behavior Center for Autism, says purposeful peer interaction can create a more natural environment where kids with autism can learn through observation. When done in a setting like that of an applied behavior analysis center, peer-to-peer interactions can pair well with specialized instruction. In other words, the neurotypical peers can model language or social behavior and the therapist can be present to help define and reinforce behavior.

Mary Rosswurm, executive director of Little Star Center, agrees that kids like Ian can make a difference. "As a mom of a child with autism, I am always so happy when I see teenagers who are so kind and caring with their disabled peers," she said. Rosswurm notes her center would consider teen peer volunteers as well.

Best Buddies is another avenue interested teens can pursue to work with kids with autism. This worldwide friendship program pairs typically developing students with peers who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"We want those friendships to be as natural as possible," said Amanda Armstrong, program manager for Best Buddies Indiana. The program, which is offered at many area middle schools and high schools, encourages the pairs to spend time together in and outside of school.

Armstrong says kids with Special Needs oftentimes have small social circles and have little interaction with peers of typical abilities. The program helps broaden these kids' friendship opportunities.

Individuals with special needs aren't the only ones to benefit from such set-ups. Ian's dad has noticed a higher level of tolerance in Ian since he began volunteering at BACA.

"His goals and my goals started this drive in getting more understanding, whether it's him going to BACA and spending time with kids and therapists or working at home. At the end of the day it isn't easy. Ian's relationship with Noah takes work and so I guess the biggest change is he's put in the work and they have a relationship."

Ian notices a difference in himself, too. He has seen first-hand that autism symptoms can improve with work and that helps him see his brother in new light. It gives him hope for the possibilities for Noah.

Of course, Ian's perspective is one of a sibling and caregiver and not the average teen. "The hardest part is going through life having an autistic brother. I'm never going to have a normal relationship with Noah. I'm always going to be watching out for him. He'll always have autism in some way and I'll be responsible for him," he said.

And what a blessing that is for Noah.

Tags: In This Issue, Special Needs

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