'A great thing for both sides': Classmates mentor students with autism

News-DemocratApril 20, 2014 

Sixth-grader Alex Baum, 12, helps her buddy Tyler Beach spell "Uncle T" as he writes it on an Easter egg he drew with markers at Douglas Elementary School in Belleville.

Alex is Tyler's mentor through Belleville School District 118's pilot peer mentor program, where regular education students are paired with a student on the autism spectrum.

"I love it," Alex said. "Every time I go I have a good feeling inside me. I feel like I'm doing a good thing."

While coloring, Alex was working to keep Tyler, a third-grader, on task, which is one of the skills she was assigned to help him with.

The peer mentors have the opportunity to work one-on-one with students with autism three times a week at Douglas, according to the district's autism consultant Chris Gibson.

During a recent mentor session at Douglas, the mentors and their buddies could be seen interacting in a variety of ways whether it was building with blocks, playing a board game or coloring pictures.

Gibson with the support of district administrators launched the peer mentor program this school year after attending a training session in St. Louis over the summer.

"We are always looking for ways to try to empower our students," Superintendent Matt Klosterman said. "Students who are mentors have the opportunity to be in leadership roles and make an impact on classmates with special needs. It creates friendships and relationships with students in the building that children on the autism spectrum may not have had the opportunity to develop."

Gibson said the peer mentor program was needed due to the significant growth in the number of students with autism the district serves. When she first started as an autism consultant four years ago, Gibson said there were 30 to 40 children with autism served by the district. That number has doubled, she said, as District 118 now serves more than 80 children on the autism spectrum in 10 different school buildings.

"It truly touches every program in our district," Gibson said.

District 118's peer mentor program is modeled after a program at a New York autism charter school, where children on the spectrum are integrated with same-aged peers.

The pilot mentor program was implemented at Douglas and Central Junior High in Belleville at the start of the school year.

The student mentors -- who were selected by their school principal and teachers -- underwent a weeklong training last summer to learn about autism and how to interact with students on the spectrum.

"I really like it, because we get to help kids with autism," sixth-grader Bianca Brooks said. "It's good for them to learn social skills. It just makes me feel like I accomplished something."

Bianca, 12, was working with her buddy Ty Johnson, a sixth-grader, on hand-eye coordination and maintaining personal space while playing the board game Candy Land during a recent mentor session.

The program has far exceeded the district's expectations, Gibson said. The students with autism have benefited from working with their peer buddies and have experienced growth in several areas including social skills like making eye contacting, staying on task, taking turns and following simple directions.

"It's been very successful," she said. "We've really had an opportunity to see growth socially and growth in some of the language and independent functioning skills."

The mentors have also gained life skills, Gibson said, such as empathy and leadership. "It has really been such a great thing for both sides," she said.

Central Junior High Principal Rocky Horrighs agreed. "With the mentors, the way they see it they are being so helpful for the kids," he said. "It's made them better leaders. They have stepped it up in other areas of the school."

The mentors meet with Gibson twice a month to access how their peer buddy is progressing and set new goals. "It's a collaborative effort between myself and the peer mentor," she explained.

In the future, Gibson hopes to expand the program into other schools in District 118. The goal, she said, is to start peer mentor programs at two or three schools each year.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BND_JForsythe.

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