Late last fall, my then 9-year-old daughter brought home a permission slip for her school’s peer-to-peer program. The peer-to-peer program links kids in the general education population with a student in the school’s autism spectrum disorder classroom. The goal of the program is to help children with autism learn social skills and independence.
Fourth graders who take part in the program are paired up with a student with autism to have lunch and then recess together twice a week, she told me excitedly. Could she do it, please? PLEASE? Yes, of course, I told her.
I was proud of her. Look at my compassionate kid, I thought. She’s willing to give up two recesses (her favorite “subject,” as she says) a week!
And I am proud of her. She has kept up her end of the bargain all year, ending her own recess after just five minutes to go back inside and eat lunch and then play with her new friend. She’s continued to support the program without complaint even after it was decided her assigned peer would spend winter recesses indoors because the frigid air and the confining clothing caused her distress.
But while I’m happy she is doing her part and giving back to her school community and specifically to her friend, whom she cares about deeply, I feel like she is getting even more from the peer-to-peer program than she is giving. Here’s why:
1.She’s more enthusiastic about going to school on peer-to-peer days. When she tells me why Thursdays are her favorite, she says, “I have gym, grandma picks me up, I have soccer practice, and I get to see X !” Not much in this world competes with gym and soccer (not to mention grandma), so this is a pretty big deal.
2. She’s gaining confidence and independence, herself. Last year she was the new kid adjusting to a move from a small private school to a large public school. Having a job to do has helped her to feel more at home in her school community. She’s been forced to interact with both kids and adults outside her own classroom and to independently get herself to where she needs to be and on time, important life skills for every kid.
3.She’s broadening her horizons. Up until this year, she was holding on to her early childhood dream of being a famous painter. Being exposed to this group of adults who help X each day has piqued her curiosity. How did X’s teacher know to make her a picture schedule? Do you have to have a special degree to teach kids with autism? What is an occupational therapist? These discussions have made college more real for her and are a great jumping-off point for conversations about her strengths and what she’s imagining for her own future.
4.She’s learning an important life lesson. In the beginning, we talked a lot about autism, and she needed a little reassurance about some of her friend’s behaviors that she found unusual. But now, I mostly hear about how she and her peer are the same, not different. They both love to bounce on the big therapy balls. They both run the track at our local Y on the weekends. They both love to swing at recess.
5.She’s learned about commitment. The peer-to-peer program really isn’t about her. Sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes she’d rather be outside with her friends. Sometimes X has bad days. And I know she’d much rather be out playing in the snow than inside two days a week right now. But she’s stuck with it in a way that I haven’t really seen her do before.