For students with Autism, one of the most daunting aspects of school is often the struggle to connect with peers in meaningful friendship. And because many of these students are assisted throughout the school day by adult para-professionals, the barrier to establishing new relationships contains an added hurdle.
But Jenison Junior High is striving to bring down barriers and improve the mainstream experience had by autistic students in 8th grade. This fall, after a full year of planning, the special education team began piloting a State of Michigan program called, “LINKS.” This program “links” regular education students with special education students with autism, creating a peer relationship that can lead to friendship and a greater sense of normalcy for the disabled child.
“A peer link is powerful — it’s nice to integrate them with kids their own age so they don’t have to have an adult with them all the time,” said Principal Brett Cataldo.
Special Education teacher Stacey Van Laan explains that regular ed. students are made aware of the program as seventh graders. Those who are naturally Loyal, Interested, Nurturing, and Kind recognize that the opportunity to LINK with a peer means giving up an hour of classes that would otherwise be used for an elective choice. The hour that is freed up in their eighth grade schedule will then be used to mentor, both academically and socially, an autistic peer.
Erica De Vree (pictured above), one of the eighth grade LINKS participants, said that working with her cousin was instrumental in her decision to sign up.
“My cousin has Williams syndrome, and working with him made me realize that I have a heart for kids with impairments. Seeing Noah (her LINKS partner) learn new words has been the most rewarding. The most difficult things has been dealing with the anxiety issues these students have. It takes a lot of patience, but I enjoy it.”
Brianna Weaver (in photo above) agrees.
“I always thought it would be a lot of fun — I wanted to help and give them friends. It’s very rewarding seeing the kids grow and realizing how much this benefits them. Sometimes I guess working with a peer is more helpful.”
This year, LINKS has just 3 special needs students participating, but hopes to move from a pilot program to a permanent one next year, adding more students as they are able.
Mrs. Van Laan is hopeful for the future of LINKS at Jenison Junior High.
“Everyone in the school has been awesome, and our general education teachers are very understanding when kids need to miss class or leave to help. We’re lucky to be working with a great group of kids and educators.”