Picture a typical high school campus...see groups of teenagers walking, talking, and eating together. Now look between the groups. See the students eating lunch alone, wandering aimlessly without talking to anyone, or sitting at a segregated special education table. Emeka stands next to a group of students but says nothing—he doesn't know how to enter a conversation. Andy sits alone because his peers are tired of hearing about tunnels and elevators. Amanda walks away from noise flapping her arms and telling students they "must stop making so much noise!" These students with autism want friends like every other high school student, but don't have the tools to form friendships.
|California high school students, Evan, Emeka, Andrew, Doug, and Sam met through Circle of Friends and have since formed friendships and understanding.
As students transition from elementary to middle and then to high school, the social gap widens between those with and without special needs. Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, who may have been accepted socially at younger ages, are now often ignored and invisible on high school campuses. Although many participate in general education classes, at lunch they are not included. This isolation often leads to poor self-esteem from lack of acceptance.
Although there are many programs for young children with autism, these programs become scarce as children transition into adulthood. There are limited resources for this underserved population of teenagers with disabilities. The never-ending question for speech-language pathologists continues to be: How long do we continue to serve these students and what is our intent? The answer: We continue to serve them throughout high school with the focus on pragmatics. High school is the time to have students use the skills they've worked on for years within the speech room, in the natural environment with typical peer friends. With support from skilled advisors, students can be guided and supported in a safe environment. The social language skills they can gain are crucial for relationships, success in jobs, and for future independence.
This need for inclusion and improved pragmatics for high-school students with ASD was the impetus behind the inception of the program "Circle of Friends, The Path to Inclusion." As an SLP on a high school campus for more than 20 years, I saw that students with social language skill challenges did well in structured therapeutic situations; however, they had difficulty generalizing and maintaining those skills. Through the Circle of Friends (CoF) program, we developed a systematic approach to improving social skills that, in turn, brought a greater understanding and acceptance of differences on campus.
Our grassroots program started by training general education students to model and shape the social language challenges our students with ASD had defined in their speech goals. Typical peers were placed in small groups of two or three students. Each group ate lunch weekly throughout the year with a student with special needs. CoF also sponsored monthly events in the community, which offered more opportunities to practice conversation and problem-solving skills in real-life situations. In addition, students developed a classroom disability awareness program that was presented to their peers, thus sensitizing all students to differences and positively affecting the overall school climate.
Over the years this continued to be a direct service delivery model that not only was effective but also demonstrated other benefits. My caseload was bursting! Many students were on the autism spectrum and therefore needed to focus on pragmatics. I was able to serve more than a third of my caseload through the CoF program at lunch. Students also were maintaining and generalizing their speech goals, something that was not happening through individual therapy sessions alone. Over time, I saw Emeka walk up to a group of typical peers and use conversation starters to begin a conversation. Andy, who still enjoyed talking about tunnels and elevators, now could ask his friends about their weekends and talk about movies.. Amanda had real-life opportunities to ask people to speak more quietly or to stop making noises. Students were able to practice the skills that had been drilled for years in the natural environment with their peers, the most important people in their lives.
In 2005, encouraged by the success of this program and my desire to help more students, I created a non-profit organization to bring CoF to more schools. Through this organization, we provide two years of consultation, train school staff to work with their students, and leave a school with a solid, self-sustained program. We now have 27 CoF chapters throughout California, involving more than 500 students with special needs and more than 3,000 of their typically developing peers. We have found this program affects not only students with autism, but all students who may not feel understood and included by their peers. This "win-win" program positively affects all students, their families, the campus climate, and the community, as people see the ease with which students interact and show genuine acceptance.
As the number of people with ASD increases (1 in 110 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there is a strong need to teach our youth that inside we are all more the same than different. When I last saw Emeka, he told me, "Because of Circle of Friends, I now have friends — I'm not lonely anymore." The goal of Circle of Friends is to change more lives like Emeka's and to bring a better understanding and acceptance of differences to students nationwide.
For more information about Circle of Friends, visit its Web site or call 310-312-6600.