School program helps kids with autism

July 13, 2009 3:01:50 PM PDT
Often, students with special needs are kept separate from other children when they're in school to help them learn. But a local school in East Harlem is showing great promise by having students work with their peers to help each other learn -- and raise awareness about autism. In addition, the students are learning about friendship. Antonio Pena is a 7th grader at I.S. 50. He welcomes what he's learned from children with autism.

"They just learn differently, and with a little help they can make friends and some autistic children are better friends than the regular kids," said Antonio, who is a peer mentor in a partnership between the two schools that share the same building.

"At the end of the 10-week training session, the peer mentors give a presentation to their classmates about what they learned about autism, and what they learned about themselves," said Moira Cray, the program's assistant director.

Educators often point out the benefits of combining general education students with special education students, but the peer mentoring program takes that idea a step further.

Peer mentor Brandi Roberts enjoys her work with kids with autism.

"I learned that kids with different disabilities are, they're not always, you know, not so smart, and that they can be really nice and sweet and they can teach you more than you know," Brandi said.

Peer mentors help in more ways than one.

"They are spreading the word about our kids, about autism, in a way that I don't think we, as adults could ever do as effectively," said Julie Fisher, executive director of the program.


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