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The Power of Peers
During the past 10 years, the number of students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder has increased dramatically, prompting educators to look for simple, cost-effective, evidence-based practices to meet the needs of this growing population. In the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., a rural three-county region, we’ve seen a 300 percent increase over a decade in the number of students diagnosed with autism. We, too, were searching for a way to provide a more inclusive environment for these students.We found an answer in LINK, an evidence-based, peer-to-peer program that benefits not just students on the autism spectrum but general education students, as well. And the price is right — about $30 per month per LINK team, the cost of a couple of pizzas.Simple and EffectiveThe idea behind LINK is simple yet effective. General education students working as a team (they’re known as LINKS) take turns pairing up with students with autism, including ASD students in their own activities throughout the day and helping them develop the social interaction skills necessary to participate in school activities inside and outside the classroom. For example, LINK students may sit with their ASD partners at lunch, help them navigate the hallways during class changes and model appropriate behavior during class.The program is coordinated by professionals already working in the building, including school social workers, speech and language pathologists, and teachers. It just takes a little front-end training for the professionals for buy-in and then a commitment by a couple of them to lead monthly facilitation meetings, which last about 30 minutes. LINK students are selected solely based on their interest in participating. They receive autism awareness training at the start of the program and then schedule LINK time with their partners. The students meet with the LINK facilitator regularly (weekly for the preschool and for the credit-bearing high school class; monthly for most others), often during lunch, to talk about their experiences, to solve problems, and to discuss how to be good friends and role models to the students with autism. We currently have 230 LINKS in 10 school buildings supporting 40 students on the autism spectrum. This is 40 percent of our district’s overall population of students with ASD. The LINK programs operate across the grade span to include preschoolers with cross-age peers through a credit-bearing course at the two largest high schools in the region. The high school course has a strong academic component and its own curriculum, developed in conjunction with the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. (It’s available at no cost at www.autisminternetmodules.org.)We believe LINK programs should be considered as part of the plan for every student with ASD.LINK’s BenefitsThe LINK program provides opportunities for general education students and students with autism to develop social competency, independence and connections to the community. In addition, general education students learn to relate to people with different needs and develop an increased understanding of individual differences.The schools have seen remarkable improvements since the district implemented the LINK program in 2011, including: • increased independence, social skills and academic proficiency of students with autism (including some students who are nonverbal and behaviorally challenged);• substantial reduction in need for paraprofessional support;• significant declines in office disciplinary referrals; and • increased engagement and school connectedness for at-risk general education students.Jessica Clark, a teacher in a self-contained classroom in the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District, says the general education students take their responsibilities seriously. “I know that I can trust the students to tell me the truth about how my special education students are doing in the classroom,” she says. “Sometimes general education teachers just tell me things are going well because they think that’s what I want to hear, but the students will tell me more about what is going on in the classroom so I can help make my students more successful.”Recognizing the important work all the students are doing, we publicly recognize the invaluable contributions LINK students make to their school culture through this program. More information about LINK and the work of the Statewide Autism Training and Resources Project of the Michigan Department of Education is at www.gvsu.edu/autismcenter. Rachel Fuerer is director of special education in the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. E-mail: email@example.com
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