Orange County School program serves as model for autistic education

Students pair with autistic peers to offer help, often learn lessons themselves

By Steven Cooper, Allison McGinley - News Director

ORLANDO, Fla. - They are extraordinary middle school students who dare to stray from their close circle of friends to lend a hand to others in need.  They're part of a peer mentoring program for autistic students at Southwest Middle School which has become a model for schools across Orange County.

William Harries is one of 14 students at Southwest to step outside the typical classroom and into a world that most kids his age don't fully understand.

As a peer mentor he works with the school's autistic children.

"In the beginning of this, it was hard to think of kids like this as just like me but I've learned that they are just like me, but with a different set of problems," said Harries.

"We have created a lot of things at Southwest that other schools would duplicate," explained teacher Kathy Meena who is an innovator in autism education.

Besides nurturing the peer mentor program she has also designed a special space for the children called a Sensory Room.

"I realize they have sensory needs they need fulfilled throughout the day. If we don't accommodate those needs, we are going to have behaviors and we are not going to get as much out of them academically as we could," said Meena. 

Meena said the environment is what makes the peer mentor program such a success.

"It is very personal.  It's very special," said Meena.

Eighth grader Jazmine Isaac has her own reason for joining the program. She is actually the peer mentor to her cousin Gabbie.

"Every day I've gotten closer and closer with him," said Isaac.  She says she is actually helping her family understand her cousin better.

Lauryn Crocker, another peer mentor, says her mom works with special needs kids and she is learning to admire and emulate her mom in a new way.

"I actually would love to go into this field," said Crocker. "After working with them and interacting with them you learn quickly within a week that they're exactly like you."

That's perhaps the most important lesson about autism that Meena hopes to teach.

After all, her connection is the most personal of all.

"I am a teacher of students with autism, but I am also the mother of a child with autism," said Meena.

Her son Cameron is actually here in class.

He inspires her to make this program a model which might explain why so many educators from around the district come here to watch and learn.       

"It's important to me because I see the urgency in not only educating our students with autism, but providing them with a future through a parent's eyes," said Meena.

Meena gives much of the credit to the success of her program to Southwest Middle's principal. She says without his support, the program could not exist.

More importantly, she believes this program needs to continue on the high school level as well.  


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