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Peer to Peer Support Programs Change Lives for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders and Their Peers

As a speech and language pathologist working with elementary students in a peer support program, Heather Stanton-Rudy knows the benefits of peer-mediated interventions, especially for independence and socialization skills. But the real impact of peer support hit home when her son Trevor, a 7th grade student at Charlotte Middle School, was connected with two peers from the high school.

“I am a true believer in peer to peer, and I am still amazed at the changes we have witnessed in just three short months,” Heather said about her son’s experience.

“Trevor began attending general education classes every day for most of the day. Before he connected with peers, he would attend general education classes 20-50 minutes per day and then only when accompanied by a staff member,” she said.

Recently, Trevor has been observed approaching and talking with classmates, and Trevor’s ability to express himself at home and at school has increased. In these few short months Heather has seen amazing changes, and she can’t wait to see what next year will bring.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological disorder with varying degrees of impairment in communication skills; social interactions; and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. The “autism spectrum” refers to the continuum of symptom severity and expression that individuals with ASD can experience.

How ASD is manifested and how severely it affects one’s life is unique to each individual. ASD is a lifelong disorder. However, individualized interventions and educational programs can lead to significant growth and improved quality of life for individuals with ASD.

Historically, ASD was misunderstood and rarely identified. Today, the prevalence rate has increased to one in 88 children. Data from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) indicate that in 1990, 1,203 children between the ages of 3 and 26 identified with ASD were receiving special education supports and services; by January 2011, 15,976 children were receiving supports and services in Michigan under the ASD category of eligibility.

Highly effective K-12 educational programming and social support is essential for students with ASD. The consequences of low expectations and lack of engagement in the general education community are significant. To date, the long-term outcomes in terms of independent living, community integration, and employment for students with ASD, including those achieving at grade level, are shockingly poor (www.nlts2.org).

However, student engagement and outcomes improve when students have individualized education program (IEP) goals aligned to state standards in general education, and when they have access to general education settings and typical social and communication models (Kurth & Mastergeorge, 2010).

What is necessary for this level of school involvement is not the “readiness” of students with ASD to participate in the general education community, but preparation of the general education and special education community, along with the student body, to understand the unique characteristics, needs, and contributions of students with ASD.

Peer-Mediated Interventions for Students With ASD

“Peer-mediated approaches have long been utilized to improve the learning outcomes and social interactions of students with and without disabilities…” (Carter & Kennedy, 2006, p. 285).

Educational programming for students with ASD should include goals for improving social competency with both adults and peers (National Research Council, 2001) and peer-mediated interventions are well-documented as an evidence-based practice for students with ASD (National Standards Project, 2010).

The state of Michigan is fortunate to have a comprehensive, well-formulated peer to peer support model, called the LINKS Peer to Peer program, which has been implemented, promoted, and supported by educators, parents, and students for many years. The purpose of peer to peer support programs is to provide increased opportunities for students with ASD to access the general education curriculum and general education students.

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