Peer Socialization and the Importance of Friendships
Peer Socialization and the Importance of Friendships
The importance of friendships in childhood cannot be overstated. This is especially true for children on the autism spectrum, whose deficits in communication and socialization skills can make developing friendships challenging. Sadly, the children who are in the most need of having good friends are instead often targets of negative attention. The National Autism Association reports that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their typical peers.
At BAC, we believe that the best way to prevent bullying is to spread understanding and acceptance. Our goal with all of our socialization programs is to equip kind, thoughtful young people with the knowledge, awareness, and language to be advocates for - and friends with - their peers with autism.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month and we recently had the opportunity to find more of these advocates and friends in our very own neighborhood. Back in the spring, BAC partnered with Brooklyn Friends School (BFS), an independent Quaker school right around the corner, for a series of planned activities as part of their fifth grade Humanities project on ability. We are grateful to Dean Laurice Hwang, who has passionately partnered with us these past 2 years to create this mutually beneficial program.
In April, BAC's Executive Director Jana Levin, Educational Director Julie Russell, and teachers Raven Stokes and Melody Leong visited BFS to introduce the subject of autism to their students. The first session included a presentation that aims to explain autism and the complex challenges children on the spectrum experience.
The students at Brooklyn Friends had had some introduction to autism before our workshop with them. Thus, they came to the workshop with open minds and hearts and a basic understanding of how disability can affect a person's life. A handful of them knew someone on the spectrum already, and the ones who didn't were exposed to the subject by reading the children's books with protagonists that had disabilities.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
This graphic novel is the true story of the author, who lost her hearing at a young age. Forced to wear a very awkward hearing aid around her neck, she overcomes her insecurity and gives herself a superhero persona: "El Deafo, Listener of All."
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
August (nicknamed "Auggie") has a facial deformity that makes him a target for teasing in his school. In a story narrated by multiple characters, the community learns a few lessons on acceptance and understanding by interacting with this wonder of a boy.
But it wasn't until they met our students that the lessons they learned began to crystallize, and they could put their understanding and natural compassion into practice.
The fifth grade was split into three groups, and each group met with our students for one session on a rotating weekly basis. Each BAC student was matched with four or five Brooklyn Friends fifth graders to be their team of new friends for the day. After engaging in a few "getting to know you" activities, they played games that encourage socialization, communication, and imagination.
They ended the sessions with an old favorite, the parachute game. Students and teachers lifted the parachute high over their head, the group leader shouted, "Run to the other side if you like pizza!" and everyone rushed to switch places, laughing and celebrating the things they have in common.
We use these games and activities in the beginning of a partnership with another school, and they've always been successful - we have a longstanding inclusion program with Hannah Senesh Community Day School that incorporates many of these same strategies. What makes this success with Brooklyn Friends remarkable is that each group only met with our students for one session and still came away with incredible insights. Several of them signed up for the upcoming fall session of BAC Friends, eager for the opportunity to spend more time with our kids.
We had a final 'reflection' meeting with the fifth grade as a whole, and students gave feedback and shared what they learned from the program. Here are some of their responses:
"It was interesting. My buddy did not speak but it was fun to learn what he liked." - Julian
"I learned that people with autism are just like us with different ways of communicating." - Sophia
"While meeting them, I tried not to be too loud, to be respectful, and to be understanding." - Esme
"I learned that no matter how much ability you have you can always make new friends to have fun with." - Camiah
"The experience taught me the importance to be nice to all people." - Dylan
When asked what skills he used when interacting with our kids, one student (Julien) simply wrote, "gentleness, kindness, forgiveness, and awesomeness."
We're proud to be a school that spreads understanding and acceptance of autism to others in our community, creating ambassadors for a more compassionate world. We're grateful to the staff and students of Brooklyn Friends and their dedication to service and kindness. The most effective way to spread the importance of acceptance and friendship is to demonstrate those qualities through action, and that's a cause we strive to fight for every day.