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Special Needs Awareness

Building Social Skills Through Peer Buddies

Mentoring Provides Significant Benefits for Children on the Autism Spectrum

February 01, 2011
Midwest Academy students recently initiated a new peer buddy program. Aptly named The Girls' Group, this student-led organization of about 25 connects middle school girls with high school girls in a social setting. The group has gone wall climbing, been out to lunch, hosted a Christmas gift exchange, and have even planned a slumber party. Notably the majority of the group's members fall on the autism spectrum.

Some may assume a child with autism is not interested in relationships based on his or her inability to connect with others in a typical way. People close to someone with autism, however, know that is simply not the case. Social deficits may be a core issue for kids with autism, but it is an issue these individuals work hard to overcome.

"People who say that kids on the autism spectrum don't really care about relationships are just giving themselves an out to not listen. These kids really do care. They show great sensitivity to each other. They really want to have friends. It's a societal cop out that people on the spectrum don't care. They do, they just don't know how to go about it. They want to have friends," says Dr. Edy Stoughton, head of school at the Midwest Academy of Indiana.

The Girls' Group is an excellent case in point. It originated last fall in response to female students expressing an interest in learning from other girls, in bonding with other girls and talking about girl issues. As such, Stoughton and staff encouraged the students to establish an organization to meet these needs.

Part of what makes The Girls' Group and other organized peer buddy programs work for kids on the autism spectrum is the structure they give to social situations. As the private school's administrative assistant, Margie Lebin, points out, individuals with autism don't always know how to initiate friendships. Having a planned activity or interaction is helpful for these kids.

Peer buddy programs for kids with autism can be crucial for their development, yet are sometimes considered an uphill battle in area schools and community groups that may be focused on other issues. Still, peer buddy programs are a worthwhile goal to pursue and some, like The Girls' Group, do exist. Peer buddies can work whether the buddy is a true peer who also has a diagnosis of autism or a typically developing peer.

"I truly believe all kids with autism would benefit from mentors," says Jane Grimes, director of marketing for Applied Behavior Center for Autism.

At her center, all kids have one-on-one applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy with an ABA therapist. As a child progresses toward his or her goals, social lessons involving peers may be introduced. Since ABA takes such an individualized approach with clients, therapists can shape the peer programs around the level of the ability of the child and levels of ability of other children to ensure they make progress toward achieving identified social skills.

The center takes peer interaction a step further by hosting social lesson programs year round that help with peer interaction, as well as social interaction. The social lessons are open to anyone and are for all ages, though Grimes says the biggest demand seems to be around ages 9 and 10. The social lessons program occurs in the evening at both its Indianapolis and Greenwood locations.

Peer programs are not the exclusive interest of private agencies and schools. Community organizations, such as the Monon Community Center, are often good resources, as well.

Kids with autism benefit from community-based adaptive programs because the activities occur in a natural community setting among peers. It's real life. People are interacting and the kids can see how others make friends and behave in a social setting.

"I think kids with autism just want to be like everybody else and they want to have social interaction and friendships and relationships. They see that in the world around them, but sometimes it's not clear how they can get that," says Brooke Taflinger, inclusion supervisor with Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation.

She says that by getting kids with autism in a setting in which they can actually see what another peer is doing or see that others have the kind of relationship they want, as well as the means about achieving these relationships, is extremely helpful. These situations help kids learn and imitate appropriate behavior, conversations and personal space. "You learn so much through peer interaction," Taflinger says.

She feels that being among typical peers or having a peer buddy is an essential part of these kids' daily living and should be part of their routine. Parents can find peer buddy programs for their children with autism in various ways. A few include:

Know the child's interests. Whether it's music or hockey, parents should seek out an organization within that area of interest and speak with the person in charge regarding the group's ability to include the child in regularly scheduled programs.

Contact school counselors to discuss any typically developing peers at the school who may make a great mentor or peer buddy.

Work with adaptive program organizers to see how they can incorporate social skills into the sessions. Perhaps one-on-one time is necessary to learn how to swim, paint or achieve some other skill, but are there ways the child can use a portion of class time to interact with others in the program?

Seek out school programs. Talk with the school district's special education director to see what programs are available or to discuss ways to get a peer buddy program started at the child's school. Some already exist. For instance, Carmel High School social studies teacher Robin Pletcher teaches a class called K-8 Mentors. It's a class of juniors and seniors who work with students at the elementary and middle schools. The focus of the program is on building academic and social skills and some of the kids being mentored have Special Needs, some are even on the autism spectrum. Pletcher likens it to a Big Brother / Big Sister program with a focus on tutoring. If no such program is available within the child's district, then parents can take the initiative to contact the high school and ask for a capable student to help mentor their child.

Contact local support groups. Resources like the Autism Society or other support groups may have peer programs already going or have the means to establish one. For instance, the Hamilton County Autism Support group has recently begun a peer group for girls with autism. One group is for children ages 5 - 10 and another is for girls 11 - 17

There are any number of ways parents can facilitate peer interaction for their child on the autism spectrum. Peer interaction is a critical part of healthy development for these and all kids.

Carrie Bishop is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons whose daily antics inspire her work and her life. Contact her at freelancewritercarrie@gmail.com.

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Tags: In This Issue, Special Needs

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