My son’s school has a program called Peer Pals though which student volunteers work and play with classmates with special needs. Reading the permission slip I was required to sign indicating my consent for my autistic son to participate in Peer Pals, I felt uncomfortable. While I understood how such a program might benefit children, the idea of assigning my child a friend, or friends, felt wrong.
Daniel, then 12 and in sixth grade, was doing well in his first year of middle school. I know he worked longer to complete assignments and homework than his classmates. I know he didn’t understand much of what teachers said in class. I know he didn’t have friends who knocked on our door. At the same time, he was pleased that he had learned to operate his lockers and navigate the hallways within days. He persisted in doing his homework independently. He was happy.
During fall conferences, his Resource Room teacher told me that there was a friendship developing between Daniel and Brian, a boy who sat at his table in English and Math. Mrs. S was teary describing how the boys talked and laughed together. Daniel told me that he sat with Brian at lunch. The relationship did not extend outside of school, but Daniel never expressed an interest in doing so, and I never suggested it.
To Peer or Not to Peer?
I discussed the the Peer Pals program with Mrs. S. She explained that his Peer Pals would share notes with Daniel if he missed a class, that he would have a Lunch Bunch so he wouldn’t “have to” sit alone in the cafeteria, and that the children would participate in fun activities to facilitate socialization. I decided to sign, but asked Mrs. S ensure that Brian did not become Daniel’s Peer Pal since their friendship was developing naturally.
A few weeks later, I discovered that Brian was Daniel’s assigned Peer Pal. Distraught, I called to ask how this had happened. Turns out the arrangement was a mistake. The social worker who runs the peer program, Mrs. K, had not communicated with Mrs. S prior to seeking peer mentors among the sixth graders.
They asked if I wanted Brian removed as Daniel’s Peer Pal, explaining, “Brian volunteered because he wanted to help Daniel.”
It was too late. I didn’t want Daniel to think Brian didn’t want him to be his pal. I didn’t want Brian to feel that his good deed had been rejected.
Daniel and Brian remained Peer Pals, assigned to each other. I was devastated, disappointed that I’d allowed a potential friendship to be marred.
When Daniel asked, “What’s a Peer Pal?” I explained that a pal is a friend, that Brian had volunteered to help him if he needs help in class because he’s his friend, because Brian wanted to be the one to help if Daniel needed help.
The school year passed. Daniel sat at Brian’s lunch table every day. There was an indoor (due to rain) picnic for the peers in the spring. There was a field trip for The Peers.
Then, in the last week of school, the yearbooks were distributed. Among student groups in the back pages was a group photo titled Peer to Peer Mentors. Daniel saw Brian in the picture and asked, “Why I not in this picture?” tapping on the page with his finger and looking with me with wide-open eyes. He was confused, and sad.
All of the “normal” kids were pictured. You know, the ones who volunteered. The ones who helped the less fortunate. The heroes. What does that make Daniel and the other autistic kids, the ones with Cerebral Palsy and Downs Syndrome, the “other” peer in Peer to Peer?
A new school year has started. I expect that the same form will come home in Daniel’s folder, asking my consent for him to participate in the peer mentoring program.
- If you’ve been in this type of group, please help me understand.
- Was the group helpful to you?
- How did you feel about it at the time and in retrospect?
- Does experience in a facilitated setting translate to other situations?
- How can parents tell if they are helping and supporting, or imposing their values and goals on their children?
Perspective and Experiences from Autistic Adult Bloggers
by Lynne Soraya
My new teacher was very extroverted and people-centric – traits that would seem ideal in a teacher. But we quickly came to clash. In her estimation, being alone and isolated were the worst possible outcomes for anyone. I was both.
Not that I wanted to be…but I was coming from a completely different perspective. For me, isolation was a far less painful place than the world in which I had spent the previous year – a world in which it was impossible to tell the cruel from the kind, and being around people meant living in constant fear, wondering where and when the next attack would come. And my teacher unknowingly made it worse – in an attempt to integrate me into the social sphere of the classroom, she “assigned” me a friend. read more
by Judy Endow
I have nothing against the goodness in the hearts of other people. However, I would like to explain how it feels to be on the receiving end when I am befriended out of the goodness of your heart.
First of all this doesn’t a friendship make because authentic friendships are reciprocal. This means that giving and receiving go both ways. The benefits are mutual. When you befriend me out of the goodness of your heart – and then tell me so – I understand that you are assuming the role of a kind benevolent person while I am perceived as a less than person, assumed to not be able to have real friends so will be grateful to you for including me. – See more at: https://ollibean.com/2013/12/10/goodness-heart#sthash.0L1iIM0b.dpuf