Children and teens in school often find polishing their social skills difficult. But for students with autism, learning social skills can be even more challenging.
The best place for students to learn these social skills is in a school environment with teachers and peers.
Autism Action Partnership piloted the Circle of Friends program to create peer groups within schools to teach students with autism social skills.
The Papillion-La Vista School District piloted the Circle of Friends program starting in the 2010-11 school year.
It started in the district’s two high schools — Papillion-La Vista and Papillion-La Vista South. They were the only two public high schools the program was piloting with, said Tammy Voisin, elementary special services supervisor.
Now, it has grown to include students in most of the district’s 14 elementary schools, both of the junior high schools and both high schools. The program has been implemented in 138 school districts across the state of Nebraska.
The Papillion-La Vista School District was honored for its work with the Circle of Friends program by the Autism Action Partnership. The district received the Help is Hope Award for working with and giving hope to children with autism and their families. This was the first year the award has been given to a school district. In the past seven years of the award, it has been given to individuals.
The Circle of Friends groups consist of two to three students identified with autism with the remaining group members are made up of typically developing students from the school.
Group sizes depend on the makeup of the building.
At the elementary level, peers are selected by teachers or counselors. At the secondary level, peers must apply.
The program provides a leadership opportunity, said Jane Byers, director of special services for PLSD.
“It’s an opportunity to show what you’re made of in terms of being a positive influence and mentor within your own age group,” Byers said.
Students meet at least every other week, and meetings are facilitated by at least one teacher.
“They really put together structured friendships and really teach what is a friend and what kind of activities you do with friends,” Voisin said. “It just takes off from there as peers start getting involved.”
Peer groups will also meet on their own and address a targeted skill to work on with the other students. Then, when in the community together, students trust each other and are able to lean on each other for help.
In addition to regular meetings, special events and outings come up. At the secondary level, students often attend sporting events. At the elementary level, students attend clubs or lunch together. Activities often continue throughout the summer, too.
“When you’re at a football game and there isn’t a structured activity, you just watch the kids and see natural friendships occurring,” Voisin said.
The Circle of Friends grant through Autism Action Partnership allows some additional funding to pay for incentives for students, Byers said. Those incentives can potentially be money for passes to a movie or snacks at a football game.
“It really helps to provide funds to facilitate all of the activities that hopefully typical friendship pairs would do together anyway,” Byers said.
At the high-school level, students engage in book clubs throughout the school year. They may read books about students with autism, Voisin said.
“Students with autism can better understand that there are students out there like them that have those social deficits,” Voisin said. “But also the peers learn about what it means to be someone with a difference.”
The program aims to engage students in friendships that develop organically.
“It’s really a facilitation of those relationships that teach kids that we’re more the same than we are different,” Byers said.
The program is also a way for students to stay connected to each other.
“They have supported some of these kids with autism since they were very young,” Byers said. “It’s that culture that’s been developed because they’ve gone through life together.”
The partnership developed because of the district’s reputation as being inclusive, Byers said.
“It does no good for our students or teachers to say, ‘Sure, they can sit in a desk in a classroom.’ It’s not until they fully embrace folks with differing abilities as their peers. That inclusion really makes a difference for kids with disabilities,” Byers said.
Students in the Papillion-La Vista School District have grown up with students of all kind of abilities throughout their school years, she said.
“They’re just a part of our environment, a part of our culture. They’re part of how we live each and every day at our schools,” Byers said.