For students with disabilities, particularly those on the Autism Spectrum, making friends isn’t always easy. Social norms and cultural cues can be lost or misinterpreted, leaving both sides confused and discouraged. Thankfully, now there is a program to help build friendships and offer the guidance of a mentor, too.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Grand Valley State University, the LINKS program has been successfully integrated into several schools in Michigan, “linking” general education “mentor” students with special education “mentees.” Currently, Allendale Middle School has 20 mentor students working with four mentees. The goal is two-pronged: to give special education students a buddy to eat lunch with, as well as provide those students with an academic coach. General education students who participate in LINKS attend class with their mentee and offer assistance as needed.
Program director Kathy Kohl pairs students and monitors schedules to provide a comfortable fit. She explains, “We try to offer assistance during electives just because when [mentors] are in a science or social studies class, we don’t want them to miss the instruction that they need. But everybody here has stepped up and they recognize what they can do to assist another student or help get them back on track.”
Ms. Kohl points out that student mentors are particularly helpful in calming their mentees during class and helping them to not feel overwhelmed. They provide a second set of eyes, ears and hands to help ensure that due dates and other critical information is recorded accurately and remains organized.
LINKS teacher Molly Carpenter adds, “The hallways are a big thing. When they are walking through the crowded hallways it’s reasurring for them to know they’ve got that familiar face. It’s a nice place to have those connections; they know that every-so-often there’s going to be someone that’s going to be passing them to help get them where they need to go.”
General education students are beginning to see the value in offering help and friendship, too. 8th grader Hannah DeMott got involved because she wanted to be able to give other students a friend. Since the program began, Hannah has seen a change in the way that autistic students are treated, saying, “People are nicer to them and a lot more people have joined LINKS this year.” Ms. Kohl points out that her core group of mentors have led by example and have set the bar high among the student body.
Fellow 8th grade mentor George Berridge wanted to “help other kids if they were having trouble,” and Evelyn Plaggemeyer, another 8th grader, explained that she would like to work in special education or become a social worker someday, so she is thankful that she has had this hands-on experience.
But arguably the most valuable take-away is a shift in thinking and an expanding sense of compassion at Allendale Middle School. Hannah reminds us all, “Don’t judge these students before you get to know them.”
Making friends, offering academic assistance and reducing stereotypes and biases? Sounds like this program LINKS a multitude of wonderful things together for the kids at Allendale Middle.