Providing a Circle of Friends - Program helps improve social, language skills for autistic kidsCourtesy of Jessica Howsden

Providing a Circle of Friends
THIRD- AND FIFTH-GRADE students at Alma Public Schools participate in a program called Circle of Friends, which focuses on improving the social and language skills of kids with autism. Members, from back left, are Karri Christensen, Adam Mapes, Connor Bose, Lance Johnson and Katy Prickett; and in front, from left, Michelle Lujan, Delany Seyler, David Wells, Jack Waldo and Peyton Herrick.

ALMA - In the special neesd education room at Alma Public Schools, a group of third-grade students gather around a table with Lance Johnson.

There are plenty of smiles to go around. As the group plays, Lance uses an iPad to communicate what he needs.

Lance is a third-grader with autism. For children like him, communicating with other students can be very difficult.

The other third-graders are part of a program called Circle of Friends, which focuses on improving the social and language skills of kids with autism while fighting bullying by educating students.

Jessica Howsden, a special education elementary teacher, applied for and received a grant in spring 2013 to open a chapter of Circle of Friends through Autism Action Partnership. She officially started the program last fall.

AAP started Circle of Friends based on work done by Mary Schlieder, a special educator with a master’s degree in education. The grant provided $500 to cover the cost of activities and outings for students who join Circle of Friends.

The program organizes students into groups. Each group usually has four peer mentors and one student with autism. Alma has two groups, one in third grade and one in fifth grade.

Third-grader Jack Waldo said Lance is great at high-fives. His comment initiates a round of fist bumping and high-fiving around the table.

“We ask students to do this. They have to be positive role models and stick up for the kids,” Howsden said.

She said the peer mentors meet with the special needs students twice each month after school. The peer mentors also meet on their own twice a month so they can practice interacting with a special-needs kid, receive information on autism and practice how to tell an adult if they need help with a situation. Lance’s mother, Melissa Johnson, said she can see many benefits from Circle of Friends.

“I think it seems he’s learned to interact with his classmates. He’s gained self-confidence. He thinks it’s pretty cool and exciting that they notice him,” Melissa said. She said Lance is interacting better with his sister. He wants to read books and pays more attention to where she is.

“For the purposes of the grant, there has to be a child with autism. We do have schools that have (children with) multiple disorders, but the primary focus is on autism,” said Sara Barada, program manager for Autism Action Partnership.

She said Circle of Friends was started in 2010 with three schools in the Omaha Metro area. It has grown to include 134 schools across the state.

For Adam Mapes, an Alma fifth-grader with autism, Circle of Friends means not eating his lunch alone. The students in his group talk to him about his favorite movies, and each day, they sit with him at lunch.

Adam’s mom, Carla Mapes, is excited to see Circle of Friends being introduced in Alma.

“I like that he gets to hang out with his peers. It’s a good way for the kids to learn about him. His friends are amazingly supportive,” she said.

She said while autism brings many challenges it’s taught her to “hold on to the small things.” For Adam and Lance, the program has meant making friends during outings to the park and the Pork Days Parade in Stamford last summer.

“Even just saying ‘hi’ or ‘how are you,’ his face lights up. Lance has a real desire to be understood. These kinds of interaction are the greatest thing for him,” said Lesley Wagner, a language resource teacher at Alma Public Schools.

She said the typical school days make it hard to find time to work on Lance’s language skills. She uses a combination of sign language and an iPad programmed with phrases such as “I want” as well as everybody’s picture and name to help Lance communicate.

“Autism right now is fighting bad stigmatism. It’s a long process,” Carla Mapes said. She said what most people don’t know is how different autism is for each child.

With her son participating in Circle of Friends, she’s hopes he will develop long-term friendships.

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