What Were You Doing When You Were in Middle School?

Autism Angels: The Peer Buddies

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I’d like to introduce you to some of Barrett’s friends:

SarahSarah 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.  CurtisCurtis 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.

NoahNoah 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).

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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. TommyI 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.

CodyCody 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 Melanielittle 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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

You may also like these posts:

Bobbi Jo Corcoran: Autism Angel

Barrett’s First Track Meet

Brunch at the Wildflower Eatery

25 thoughts on “What Were You Doing When You Were in Middle School?”

  1. this is just amazing. My son is in 6th grade, he’s an Aspie…this would be absolutely amazing. For others in school like him & the kids that volunteer. I’m going to talk to the school board. I think these kids that help are truly special & my heart feels good just reading about them!!! Just amazing.

  2. I’m very blessed to be the mom of Tommy Rhodes. Part of our mother/son time is spent talking about the Awesome Class and his involvement being a peer buddy. I almost cried when Tommy told me that he was running track with Barrett. Tommy tried out for track last year and didn’t make it so he runs cross-country instead. Tommy adores Bear and I can see how proud he is of him by the smile on his face when Barrett accomplishes something. I fight back the tears watching Tommy and Barrett run together. I see two bright young men with an awesome future ahead of them. I’m so proud that my son has the love and compassion in his heart to want to make a difference in world. He reminds me so much of my mom that it’s scary. She was such an amazing woman and Tommy is such an amazing young man!!! Thanks for allowing us to be a part of Barrett’s life! We love him!!!!

    1. You are Blessed Lisa! Tommy is an extraordinary young man. If he changes his mind about being a teacher – he should be a politician (the good kind). He is so gregarious.

  3. I am just blown away by the program and all who participate. Makes my heart fill overflow with joy how the peers have made such an impact for the beautiful kids on the spectrum. Kudo’s to the school for having such a program, to the teachers who do an amazing job with the kids and the peers for their support and kindness. All are blessed!

  4. WOW WOW WOW WOW!!!! What an amazing AMAZING program and those kids? INCREDIBLE human beings! I can only imagine the hard work they do in that awesome class, not only working with their autistic peers, but their tests and essays and extra work they do too! This gives me hope… hope in teenagers, middle school, special needs people, and humanity.

    There is nothing sweeter than reading this post, and learning that there are middle schoolers who WANT to be helping other peers with special needs. I love that none of them have been bullied about it either, and that there is a WAITING list!

    Can my daughter go to your school? BRAVO all you amazing middle school students who are brave, and caring, and truly live a life of integrity and purpose. I am marveling at YOUR awesomeness. :)

  5. Thank you so much for this beautiful post. My son Cody has had an amazing adventure during his middle school years. Not only has he helped Jackson to grow and be an amazing young man, but Jackson has done the same for him. He has helped to teach Cody compassion, patience, and understanding. The bond that these 2 have will never be broken and it warms my heart to see all of the peers helping this class.

    1. You are so welcome. Cody is a great kid. I truly enjoyed getting to know him better. SO sweet – and his heart! I couldn’t be more thrilled for Jackson, or Cody. The whole story give me chills, and makes my eyes fill with happy tears.

  6. My heart literally swelled reading this and these kids are truly amazing. Seriously, as former middle school teacher, who taught kids on the spectrum, who were mainstreamed, I was overcome by the amazingness of these young kids, who have taken this on and seem to be making such a wonderful difference. Bravo to them and thank you so much, Allie for sharing this here today.

    1. How did I not know you were a special education middle school teacher? I could have been picking your brain all this time. Oh, wait, I just answered my own question…

  7. I find myself crying over nearly every post you write. lol Anyway, this program sounds amazing. Truly, amazing. On every level, in every capacity. This is exactly what is needed for our kids to excel. Just the simple act of having kids apply to be a part of the program turns it all to such a positive thing.. something that makes the kids volunteering feel special, too. I’m so happy that you have this for your Bear and although my main man isn’t even near middle school yet, my daughter will be a rising sixth grader in the fall. How wonderful would something like this be for her and her friends?

    1. Happy tears, right? It may be at your middle school, on the down low. I’d ask the guidance counselor. Bear’s teacher has really grown the program, and made it irresistible to the peers. It’s fantastic.

  8. I cried about eight times reading this and looking at the photos. I’ve only met one of them (yours), but I just love every one of these kids. The autism world is fortunate to have you as a voice, advocate and a provider of insight and perspective. Does Vickery have this program? I KNOW our three would jump at the chance to be a buddy.

    1. Okay, now you’re going to make me cry. Thanks momma! I don’t think VCMS has the program. To my knowledge, they only have one special education class – and I’m not sure what classification it is. But, I do believe WFHS has it. And I know your three would be perfect for it (and would be able to skip the mini-boot camp:))!

  9. Pardon the pun – but what an AWESOME CLASS of human beings. They definitely have caring hearts and don’t you wish there were more of them in this world? Those quotes were beautiful!

    1. Thanks Kristen. I agree, pretty awesome! I’m still amazed by them and hope they represent their generation (and are not the exception). If they do, I have high hopes for the future.

  10. Well knock me over with a feather too! This is AWESOME.. about the Awesome Class. So glad they’re never bullied. So glad these great kids want to be involved. So glad they have an influence on Bear. It makes perfect sense, though. Kids are influenced by other kids – both in bad and good ways. Focusing on the good.. this seems brilliant.

    1. Thanks Tamara! There are so many aspects of teenage life I don’t understand today. But I’m thrilled by how some are so confident and fearless about doing the right thing.

  11. I’m crying at how awesome these kids are. Seriously. Every kid should be required to be in a program like this – I feel like it’d cut down on bullying! We just found out about a boy on the bus bullying Tucker about his speech – this kid actually headbutted Tucker in the stomach! UGH! Thank you to all of these wonderful peer buddies for their outlook, kindness, and overall kick@ssness!! xxoo

    1. Seriously? Oh my God Kristi!? You need to call the school – unacceptable. Oh, that makes me so sad, and pissed. In kindergarten, no less! I’ll call you this afternoon.

  12. When my son was diagnosed with Aspergers, Ms. Corcoran encouraged me to have him sign up for the peer tutor program because she thought it would be as good for him as it would be for the kids he worked with. Jack loved it and it really helped him to better understand himself as well as the kids he worked with.

    It’s an experience that he says was one of the most significant of his life (he still talks about it a year later), and I’m so grateful to Ms. Corcoran for seeing how good it would be for him and encouraging him (and me) to be a part of it. The Awesome class is just that – AWESOME!

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