Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Typical Teen, Atypical Peer
Noblesville Student Volunteers to Get Social

by Carrie Bishop

March 01, 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, Ianís 15-year-old brother, has autism and Ian knows one day he will be Noahís 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 Ianís dad Jeff has encouraged. Itís due in large part to his strong desire to secure a trustworthy caregiver to look after Noah when he and Noahís mom are no longer able to.

ďWe try to instill that his mom and I arenít going to be around forever, so at some point Noahís going to need a caregiver more his age. Ian, being the oldest sibling, is likely going to be that person,Ē 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 donít enjoy a particular activity they are doing together, they just stop. Itís 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. ďAs 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,Ē 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.

ďWe want those friendships to be as natural as possible,Ē 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 kidsí friendship opportunities.

Individuals with special needs arenít the only ones to benefit from such set-ups. Ianís dad has noticed a higher level of tolerance in Ian since he began volunteering at BACA.

ďHis goals and my goals started this drive in getting more understanding, whether itís him going to BACA and spending time with kids and therapists or working at home. At the end of the day it isnít easy. Ianís relationship with Noah takes work and so I guess the biggest change is heís put in the work and they have a relationship.Ē

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, Ianís perspective is one of a sibling and caregiver and not the average teen. ďThe hardest part is going through life having an autistic brother. Iím never going to have a normal relationship with Noah. Iím always going to be watching out for him. Heíll always have autism in some way and Iíll be responsible for him,Ē he said.

And what a blessing that is for Noah.