Brethren Peer to Peer group helps Autistic students fit in

BRETHREN — It isn’t any secret that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been on the rise for quite a few years.

This student was able to hold plenty of tennis balls during the teamwork exercise to see who could hold the most in the Brethren Schools Peer to Peer program Fun Field Day.

This student was able to hold plenty of tennis balls during the teamwork exercise to see who could hold the most in the Brethren Schools Peer to Peer program Fun Field Day.

Statistics show that 1 in 68 children is identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder and more than 3.5 million Americans live with it.

One of the challenges staff members at the Manistee Intermediate School District and the area K-12 school districts staff members face is creating a school environment that not only helps Autistic students fit in, but to be successful.

What was developed was the Peer-to-Peer LINKS program that was established several years ago which consisted of pairing main stream students with Autistic ones in various activities. Manistee ISD Autistim Consultant Micheal Amor said the program has produced great success in several area schools.

“The goal of the Peer to Peer LINKS program is to learn about Autism and model appropriate school behavior, encouraging social interactions and just plain having fun for these students,” said Amor. “It’s a volunteer program and is facilitated by educational staff in their local buildings.”

At Brethren School in the Kaleva Norman School District they have established a solid program that produces good results. The Autistic students are paired up with their LINKS who share their lunch period with them and incorporate them into different programs to feel at home. It is a real team effort at Brethren Schools, according to special education teacher Bill Cunningham.

“(Teachers) Vivian Peck and I co-chair the ASD team here at KND schools,” said Cuningham. “KND teachers Julie Riggs and Krystal Magee attend the meetings regularly along with the MISD itinerant staff including, Michael Amor, Matt Somsel, Manda Howes and Sherry Kilpatrick. The general education teachers for each student frequently attend our meetings.”

Cunningham said for a program of this nature to succeed it takes a great deal of dedication on the part of those involved in it.

“The ASD team has 27 scheduled Thursday morning meetings,” said Cunningham. “In addition, many of the KND ASD team members volunteer their time for Peer to Peer group meetings during lunch.”

Brethren Schools has seven students with ASD and those students with their supporting LINKS  recently were given the opportunity to celebrate that collaboration with a fun field day.

“Manistee MISD social worker Matt Somsel and Kaleva Norman Dickson special educator Bill Cuningham facilitated the activities and led the students in reflecting on their actions and positive influences with the Autistic students,” said Amor.

Cuningham said following each of the activities they would ask questions of the groups of students.

“Most often, the peers would answer with words and phrases about teamwork, caring about what others say,  or think, paying attention, having eye contact, speaking clearly and cooperation,” said Cuningham. “I must have heard these kids say the words ‘thank you’ about 100 times toward all the adults present.”

Cuningham said programs like this make a difference.

“When kids with Autism along with their supporting peers realize that they are truly appreciated through celebrations like these events, our world becomes a better place to live in,” said Cuningham.

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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