By Nikki McKim
Days spent at school were often overwhelming and difficult for seventh grader Dallas Huddleston, especially when it came to socializing. That’s where Circle of Friends came in. The program – in its first year at Falls City Middle School, is a form of Peer Mediated Intervention where typically developing peers are taught about classmates with social challenges, and invited to befriend them. In honor of Autism awareness month, middle school teachers, Brenda Streit, Lynette Fankhauser and para Lyle Wissman invited three mothers into the classroom to discuss the daily challenges they face having a child with autism or Asperger syndrome.
For most of the students, the group has turned their lives around.
“We have really been through it” said Dallas’ mom Sherry Huddleston. “But this has been huge. When you have a child that comes home all the time that doesn’t have friends, says he never has friends, it’s hard. Now he comes home and talks about this friend and that friend and it’s always someone from his Circle of Friends group.”
The program started with a grant from Autism Action provides funds for materials, food and activities. Peers were chosen by teachers who saw them as positive role models and saw their willingness to help others. So far the program includes eight target students and 13 peer mentors in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
Circle of Friends offers opportunities for children suffering from autism or Asperger syndrome to interact socially on a regular basis, something that is incredibly difficult for them to do on their own. Children with autism are less likely to exhibit social understanding, some with high functioning autism suffer from more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non-autistic peers, despite the common perception that children with autism prefer to be alone.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behavior. It currently affects 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys, according to autismspeaks.org
A child with an autism spectrum disorder will have his or her own individual pattern of behavior. While autism is usually a lifelong condition, all children and adults benefit from interventions, or therapies, that can reduce symptoms and increase skills and abilities.
During the 30-minute question and answer session each parent shared their stories with the ‘friends.’
Megan Vice’s mom, Wendy addressed the group and said “She (Megan) is more in the Asperger’s range. Social stuff doesn’t make sense to her like talking to other people or having a conversation about things you both like.” She explained that living in a smaller community has benefited their family. “Everyone’s always been great. I’ve known these kids for a long time, I think this makes them more aware of why she is-and whatever you learn here is going to make you a better person in the long run.”
Carla Haworth, Nathaniel’s mom explained the condition that Nathaniel suffers from. Pervasive developmental disorder or PDD, means it’s through every part of his system, his social, emotional and communication. It affects all of him. She had nothing but praise for the group of children who interact with her son.
“I think they’re all great, when I see little videos of some of you interacting with him [Nathaniel] I watch how encouraging you are and how patient you are with him. How you want him to be a part of it. I think it’s a wonderful thing-I’m very proud, proud of you guys” she said.
Some of the group will embark on a new journey come this fall. They will move on to high school, away from their “safe zone.” Children with autism often have a resistance to change, but volunteers in the group are looking forward to it-asking their teachers how they will be able to help in High School.
Streit said “You know them better than anyone else, so you’re going to be their voice and watch out for them-standing up and being a good friend.”
Sherry Huddleston, mother of Dallas said every school year is scary and it’s hard to transition.
Haworth acknowledged the fears that a lot of parents in this case have, often wondering if their son or daughter is being treated unfairly, teased or bullied.
“In Nathaniel’s case he could never communicate that to me. He could never tell me if he is being bullied or mistreated because he can never conceptualize that. It may upset him, but I would have to be a good detective to find out.”
But circle of friends has alleviated some of that worry for these parents. “You’re out there, you have your eyes on him and you can see and step in if someone says something that’s not good. Maybe you can say, you don’t understand Nathaniel, this is the way he works” said Haworth. “You can be his voice to speak for him and that gives me great comfort that you’re out there and you’re for him and that’s really great and I appreciate it.”
The group does a lot of activities to promote inclusion such as making scarecrows for South and Middle School, carving pumpkins for nursing homes, making “I am thankful cards” for middle school staff, going on haunted hayrack rides, celebrating thanksgiving dinner together or playing a big kid version of “Hungry, Hungry Hippo’s” with scooters, laundry baskets and balloons.
But for this tight knit group of 24, Circle of Friends is more than just having fun, it’s about raising awareness about Autism. This month the group made a window display at school for National Autism Awareness month. Their fundraiser, “Change for Autism” raised $242.00 the first week and $505.00 after collecting the second week. Streit said it far exceeded her expectations in the first week. The money raised will be donated to Autism research.
They also designed shirts for the entire group that they all wear proudly.
Autism; Amazing, Unforgettable, Trusting, Inspiring, Surprising and Misunderstood.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I think it turned out awesome!” said Streit about the first year of the program.
And I think everyone involved would agree: It truly is awesome.