Circle of Friends: A Peer Program for Including Students with Autism

Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder are characterized by deficits in social interactions, nonverbal communication, and atypical behaviors. These adversely impact their ability to communicate and interact with their general education peers, which can often result in feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. If not addressed early on, such behaviors can persist into adolescence and adulthood, resulting in impaired ability to build and maintain relationships and develop positive vocational and relationship skills.

 

Typical peers can be a valuable resource to assist students with autism to develop pro-social communication and relationship skills!  One program that was successful at a local high school is called “Circle of Friends”. Circle of Friends pairs typical peers on campus with students in moderate to severe special education classes. Students in the general education program are trained by the school psychologist, speech therapist, or counselor on skills for supporting youth with disabilities. These skills might include active listening, communication skills, pro-social skills, and modeling. Students are then paired with a student with special needs and meet together at least once a week.  Activities may include eating together at lunch or snack, attending a school activity, or playing a sport or game. The program is voluntary for both special education and typical peers. 

 

Research shows that both typical peers and special education students benefit from peer mediated programs, as all students have been found to improve social skills, develop positive coping skills, and even increase academic achievement (SWIFT Schools.org). Additionally, peer-mediated programs have been found to positively impact school culture and climate and increase opportunities for inclusion (SWIFTSchools.org). One positive outcome observed at the high school was that a sixteen year old student with autism was invited to attend Prom with his Circle mentor. This created a life-long memory and positive feelings that continued throughout his high school career.

 

Peers are a wonderful resource that can be trained as mentors, role-models, tutors and friends.  When typical peers are paired with students with Autism, both will benefit!

 

Author: Dori Barnett, Ed.D.

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