JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - They're called peer buddies, and they're a big help to students with autism and related disabilities.
“It's been a great opportunity for our general education students to see that it's not quite so scary. You can go in and really have a connection and bond with someone who's significantly different than you,” Melissa Call, site coach at Lakeshore Middle School, said.
The peer buddy program is new at Lakeshore Middle. It's being offered as an elective, so general education students can get credit for helping in the disability classrooms.
Seventh-graders like Aaliyah Murray are getting a lot out of it.
“I can go home that day and just think back to how I was helping the students and helping them learn something new,” she explained.
Numbers show the interaction is needed. According to The Florida Hospital System, autism affects 1 in 120 children. As of 2003, Florida had the sixth highest number of kids with autism in the country.
“Unfortunately, we do have more and more students who are being diagnosed with autism,” Call said.
At Lakeshore, pairs work on a number of things to improve communication and social skills. Action News sat in on a few classes to see.
“We’ll do some dancing or music and vocabulary,” peer buddy Alexis Hope said.
Patience is a virtue around there, but it's demonstrated with kindness and love. Action News asked each peer buddy what he or she learned from the program, and they all had the same response:
“To be understanding,” Brett Rosado said.
The program has already grown by leaps and bounds. At the beginning of the school year, in the fall, there were only five peer buddies. Now they're up to 13 or 14.