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Peer Programs: A Win-Win Proposition

This article was contributed by Wanda Curley, an Autism Resource Specialist and mom to a son with autism.


“When we love and respect people, revealing to them their value, they can begin to come out from behind the walls that protect them.”
– Jean Vanier, “Finding Peace”


Ryan Curley and one of his friends at graduation

Ryan Curley and one of his friends at graduation

This past year, our son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) turned 22 years old, reaching the end of his school years and heralding the beginning of his official transition to adulthood. The occasion was quite monumental for us, and one that caused quite a bit of celebration and reflection. As many “autism parents” do, I immediately began to reflect back over the years of IEP meetings, evaluations, conferences, meetings, etc. One of my first thoughts after the initial, deep sigh was regarding what, if any, advice I could offer to a new parent or, for that matter, any parent who was still on this path to adulthood with their loved one. It did not take me long to come up with an answer to that question, and this will be the topic of this article.

If there is one thing from our personal experiences that I would suggest that parents advocate for, it is that their child have a chance to reap the benefits of some type of peer-based program. This programming is often inherently accessible to children already in inclusive or totally mainstreamed settings, but I want to emphasize that it is just as important to our children who spend their educational years in a more self-contained setting. I believe all individuals with ASD can benefit from some type of peer programming at every “age and stage.” I also believe it is most ideal when this type of programming can be started at a very early age and continued on through adolescence and into adulthood. Of course, thanks to the IDEA policies of the past several decades, federal law now promotes inclusion for our children to the greatest extent that is possible for them from ages 3 to 22. I think, however, that a good peer-tutoring program can take simple inclusion a step further and actually go beyond the basics of being just included in a mainstreamed setting for the sake of mainstreaming. I believe good peer programming is essential and leads to something many take for granted in this world: pure and simple friendship.

So what exactly might a good peer program for a student with autism look like? Basically, a peer-tutoring program is when a student with autism (or any disability) is paired with a neuro-typical student, both in structured teaching settings as well as in the informal social settings of the educational environment. The hope is that the peer interaction will serve a variety of purposes for the student with ASD, not only providing some help with educational deficits for the student, but improving social skills and two-way communication. It can also provide a better understanding of empathy and socially appropriate behavior. Research on this topic points to the benefits of improved cognitive abilities for the children with ASD, particularly for younger children. However, the most important outcome is expansion of the child’s social circle and an overall broadening of social skills and inherent self-esteem. These latter outcomes, although difficult to measure, can certainly be lifelong benefits for both individuals involved.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of any truly successful peer program is more evident in the outcomes described by the tutors themselves. Some of my son’s tutors in the past few years have stated that they learned so much more from him than they had actually been able to teach him. They have spoken about the way they learned to look more at the ways that they were similar to him rather than different. They said that they started out thinking they were doing him a favor, yet he made them feel better about themselves in the process. Some of them have stated that somehow as they watched him struggle and overcome with their help, they were able to realize how fortunate they were in their everyday worlds, and they were inspired to give back and to seek out others like him who needed their help and understanding.

Like many parents of a child with autism, I remember soon after receiving our son’s diagnosis that one of my first real fears or concerns was that he might never know the joy of having a true friend. After hearing from several of his “tutors” (now simply referred to by me as his “friends”) that he was one of their best friends and that they would continue to keep in touch with him even after graduation, I realize that fear is thankfully not a reality in our lives. This is huge! I believe this reality is thanks to a successful peer-tutoring program and the remarkable ability of some young people to look beyond differences and embrace the similarities we all share as individuals on life’s journey. Whether we are parenting a child with a disability or a neuro-typical child, we understandably want to help that child live as independently as possible. I believe, however, that it is also just as important to teach our children that with all of our differences and unique abilities, we are always stronger when we stand together rather than apart. Peer programming does just that: helps us realize that whoever we are, we all rely on others to help us along in this journey of life. Regardless of whether our child has been directly affected, all of us have probably heard the sad stories of how bullying in schools has increased in recent years, most specifically among our children with disabilities. How much of this bullying could be avoided if every public and/or private school in this country had peer programming of some type? I believe this type of programming could have a huge impact on students of all ages and could lead to greater understanding and awareness of disabilities, development of strong friendships, and a reduction in bullying problems.

So if you are a parent reading this article, what are some things you can do to advocate for a peer program at your child’s school?

  1. Get involved! Make yourself known and available to the principal and your child’s teachers. If possible, volunteer when and where you can, both during and after school.
  2. For parents of elementary children, start early to advocate for opportunities to educate students on autism and/or other disabilities. Donate a book on understanding differences to your child’s library or classroom. Even better, go and volunteer to read the book and educate the students yourself. (The ASNC Bookstore staff would be thrilled to help you find appropriate books for this purpose. To see some of them, click here.)
  3. Talk to the principal, guidance counselor, and/or other staff about what peer programming might already be in place. If there is none, ask whether they would be willing to collaborate with you and a group of parents and professionals to get something in place, whether it is a tutoring program during the school day that pairs a child with ASD with a typical peer or for afterschool functions like parties, sports events, the prom, etc. Start with whatever you can get approved by your child’s school.
  4. Advocate that all peer tutors receive some sensitivity training before they are involved in the program. Help foster the mentality that a tutoring program is not necessarily something they must participate in but rather that they should want to do so. The most successful peer tutors usually feel that their participation is a privilege that does not come lightly and without some responsibility on their part.

Once a program is up and running, sit back and watch the meaningful relationships that develop in this win-win situation. Offer plenty of opportunities for the typical peers to reflect and share what the peer programming has meant to them. At our son’s graduation, his friends wrote for us a book of reflections on their friendship with him and all that he had taught them about friendship and life. It is a gift I will cherish forever, and I wish the same for all my fellow warriors/parents. I hope many of you will seek to make this opportunity available to your child, as all of our children have so much to offer the world and deserve the same opportunities for friendship that every person has. Good luck!

Wanda Curley can be reached at 336-333-0197, ext. 1412, or wcurley@autismsociety-nc.org.

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