Autism Angels: The Peer Buddies
A few weeks ago, I shared a post about my son Barrett’s first track meet. In that post, I explained that Barrett wouldn’t be able to be on the team, if it weren’t for the village of people who support him. One of those villagers is a young man named Tommy Rhodes. Tommy’s been going to practice with Bear and running with him in the meets, even though he’s not on the track team. Tommy is an autism peer at Barrett’s Middle School. He’s one of many. Forty students volunteer in the Awesome Class, the school’s adopted name for Barrett’s class.
To be a peer volunteer, you have to have certain characteristics. For starters, you must have a lot of patience, show respect (to teachers and students), and be flexible. All peers in the program had to apply, provide two staff recommendations, and write an essay explaining why they want to help in the classroom. After that process, the potential peers must participate in what I’d call a mini boot camp. They have to work in the classroom for a week (after signing a confidentiality agreement), take an autism tutorial on-line, and meet with Mrs. Corcoran (Bobbi Jo). At that meeting, the teacher and student discuss whether or not it’s a good fit. In two years, Bobbi Jo has only had two students tell her they didn’t think they could handle it.
For the sixth graders, their first tour of duty is a nine week session. Their primary responsibility is to work with the students in a group setting, so they can get to know them and gain a more comprehensive understanding of autism. It also gives the teachers an opportunity to evaluate and determine if they can handle a semester-long assignment in seventh grade.
During the seventh grade semester, peers are given a one-on-one assignment with a student so they can develop a connection. Each day they attend an elective class with their assigned student, usually art or PE. They help the students by breaking down the assigned tasks into easier-to-understand steps. Often a parapro helps them determine the steps. Peers also help the student stay focused in the inclusive environment – they’re the wing-men in a world that is bigger than the self-contained classroom. If it weren’t for the peers, Barrett and his classmates wouldn’t be able to attend electives every day.
Those peers who return to help in eighth grade usually stay for the full year. At this point they’re veterans and, as such, take on more responsibility. They are assigned fifteen minute cycles to rotate with different students and/or different tasks. The tasks are more academically focused and have specific teaching goals. Bobbi Jo has discovered that her students often learn faster when working with peers.
The peers work in the classroom every day. The program takes the place of one of their electives and they receive a grade. Those looking for an easy grade need not apply. These kids really work – trust me, I know. I’ve seen it in action and sometimes it’s not for the faint of heart. Their courage and dedication is inspiring to me, because when I was in middle school I also volunteered in a special needs classroom. I lasted exactly one hour. I’m not exaggerating. In addition to the grunt work, the students also have a curriculum filled with vocabulary words, written assignments, and lots of reading. For each book Bobbi Jo assigns, the peers have to write a summary. At the end of each semester, there’s a final exam and they must write another essay describing what they’ve learned from working with children on the spectrum. I read some of the essays and they blew me away. Throughout this post, you will see passages from those essays.
Still, there’s a great demand to be in the classroom. Bobbi Jo routinely has to turn students away. I was curious as to what kind of person feels the pull to work in a special needs classroom at twelve or thirteen years old. The only common traits I can discern are a caring heart and a call to serve. There’s someone from every “clique” in school, which I think is amazing. Imagine the Breakfast Club, but they’re all volunteering of their own free will.
I’d like to introduce you to some of Barrett’s friends:
Sarah Atsu, 7th grader. Sarah is a very smart young lady who already has her sights set on the International Baccalaureate program at one of our local high schools. Sarah is new to the peer program and admitted to me that, although she was curious about kids with autism, she was scared to volunteer. She was nervous to tell me that, but I admitted to her that I’m still sometimes nervous, even with my own son. I also shared my failed attempt to volunteer. When I asked her how she felt now, Sarah assured me that she loved it. Sarah takes particular pride in being able to calm the students down when they became upset, revealing that it’s ”the best feeling.” She’s also come to appreciate all the different personalities. Sarah smiled and told me that being in the Awesome Class has changed her life. Bobbi Jo later confided to me that Sarah wrote her a personal letter, expressing her gratitude for being a peer.
Curtis Newcomb, 8th grade. Curtis was led to the Awesome Class because he wanted to help kids with autism. His first exposure to autism came when he helped a friend’s cousin who’s on the spectrum. Curtis is very smart, and apparently in an advanced math class, because he’s been studying exponents 1 through 20. I have no idea what that means and was too embarrassed to ask (and I used to be pretty good at math), but he shared with me that Barrett can also do exponents up to 20. I beg your pardon? Curtis was curious to see if Barrett could do it, because he does well with the math assignments that Bobbie Jo gives him – and he’s great at puzzles. See that? Curtis guessed that because Barrett likes puzzles, perhaps he could do exponents. He showed Bear what to do, and lo and behold Barrett did it. I never would have tried that. And perhaps Barrett can now teach me.
Noah Philips, 7th grader. Noah has been eager to get into the Awesome Class. When he was a fifth grader, he used to help out in his elementary school’s special education classroom. He’d read to the students and wanted to do more. When he learned about the Awesome Class last year, he asked to help, but was unable to because at the time the program was only for seventh and eighth graders. Noah loves it when he walks into the classroom and is greeted with hugs. I asked him what he’s learned by being in the class. He explained that he used to wonder why people with autism would do certain things that appeared weird or different. After working with them, he realized they just have a different way of doing things – “and that’s cool” (said matter-of-factly).
Tommy Rhodes, 8th grade. Tommy is the original peer helper – he wanted me to make sure I noted that. He’s sort of like an autism ambassador for the class, and they couldn’t have a nicer or more polite representative. I suspect he’s seen it all, but remains unfazed and has decided that he’s going to be an autism teacher when he grows up. He wants to help people with autism and make a difference in their lives – he wants “to leave his mark.” I have little doubt that he will. As the veteran of the peer program (and he’s actively recruiting sixth graders for next year), I was curious about what he’d want people to know about children on the spectrum. “That deep down, they’re just like us.” He also offered a warning, “Don’t baby talk them, they don’t like it!” He then shared a story with me about a student (whom he didn’t name) who in no uncertain terms made sure Tommy knew that baby talk wouldn’t be tolerated. Unfortunately, due to all the confidentiality stuff, I can’t share it, but it’s funny. Tommy now only addresses his charges as equals.
Cody Roper, 8th grade. Cody has a cousin with autism and that’s why he initially signed up to help. Once in the classroom, Cody immediately connected with one of the students and their friendship has been life-changing for both boys. How cool is that? Cody just wanted to help, and he ended up with a friend. And that was the number one thing he wanted me to know, and to tell all of you – these kids can be your friends. They want to be your friends, you just have to be willing to get to know them. He also commented that “they’re just like us,” which seems to be what all these peers want you to know. Cody’s also been able to help his family and cousin with the knowledge and experience he’s gained from working in the Awesome Class.
Melanie Waltrip, 8th grade. Melanie was the first cheerleader to sign up to be a peer. Melanie said she wanted to be in the class because she was feeling a little lost after losing her mom. She felt like she belonged in the class, helping the students. Melanie agrees with Cody that children on the spectrum can be your friends. She stressed that you should treat people on the spectrum the way you want to be treated. I think that’s good advice for everyone. The teachers reported to me that Melanie has an amazing ability to calm the students down and has on occasion talked a few off the proverbial ledge. She’s good at initiating conversation with the students, and won’t let them try to “get out” of talking to her.
Not to overuse the word, but these children are pretty awesome themselves. Bobbi Jo informed me that at least three of the peers want to be special education teachers and another four have expressed interest in occupational, speech, or physical therapy. And one student plans to be pediatric neurologist, focusing on autism. Would these career aspirations have come to fruition without the peer program? Who knows?
What struck me, as I had lunch with these six kids and my son, was the effect their presence had on Barrett. Barrett has matured quite a bit in the last year, but still, I was seeing an altogether different boy during our lunch. He did not get out of his seat once, not even to jump up and down (something he often does when an environment gets too loud). I’d arrived with three boxes of pizza, which were in his sights and within his reach. Barrett is a pizza monster and yet, he didn’t attempt to get up and score another slice. Not once. He did look around and stare at the boxes, but he refrained from any attempt to swipe a slice. Curtis noticed this and asked Barrett what he wanted. Barrett replied, “Pizza.” Then Barrett looked to me. I had an audience so I had to do the right thing, which was to require Barrett to ask, using a full sentence. When I do this at home, especially when he’s distracted by his love and desire for pizza, in can be a bit of an ordeal. Usually I have to prompt him repeatedly, and model what he needs to say – verbatim. Sometimes he gets impatient with me, ignores me, and gets his pizza, laughing as he does.
So I put my autism mom hat on and said, “Barrett, you need to ask properly.” Then I felt a twang in my belly, as I braced myself for his reaction. I was fully expecting to be embarrassed.
He looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy, can I have another piece of pizza, please?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
At another point, Barrett was drumming on the table. This drives me crazy. Before I could reprimand him, Curtis beat me to it. “Barrett, we don’t do that at the lunch table.”
Would you believe that he stopped? Right then. I was blown away. It dawned on me that Barrett cared about what these kids thought of him. Barrett has never cared about what people think of his behavior. He wanted to fit in, he wanted to be one of the gang. And he was.
Later, I observed in the classroom and witnessed a “shift change.” For each new period, a new crew of peers takes over. I thought it was all a bit chaotic, because at one point there were a lot of people in one room, plus two service dogs. I’m not on the spectrum, but could feel my anxiety level rising – just a tad. But, the transition was seamless. Each new peer buddy tagged the old one out, checked their student’s schedule and they were off. Barrett and some nice young lady, who helped him change his shoes for P.E., left together and he didn’t even look back to see if I was watching or even still there.
I asked the group if they were ever bullied for being peer buddies, by their mainstream classmates. They all looked appalled by the question and unanimously and strongly answered that they never were. They said everybody in the school thinks it’s cool – and many of their friends also want to be to peer buddies.
Times have changed and I’m so grateful. Not only do these kids help Barrett and his friends, but they are champions for their cause. They set an extraordinary example for a whole student body and they make their teachers and administration proud. They are actively molding the future for our children through their actions, and with their kindness and generosity. Seriously, I think every child, regardless of whether they are special needs or not, should have buddies in their corner like my son does. I’m so grateful and full of love and hope for the future.
Aren’t these the coolest kids? Please show them some love in the comments. Does your school have a Peer Program? If not, I urge you to ask your school’s administration to consider it.
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