To build communities of caring, we see a need to teach and promote empathy. Most programs for children with special needs place the emphasis on modifying the child’s behavior. We know that autism is not a behavioral disorder, so the Love Andrew team with the help of Oakwood Middle School is putting together a new group program designed to help typical kids understand and be friends with someone with special needs.
As Christina Papaleo, the school counselor says “Since the school day is so structured, the kids don’t have time to develop deeper friendships – we want to help them move past the hellos and high-fives.”
The pilot group consists of seven boys, chosen because they display good character, empathy, and kindness and Andrew. In order to give the boys an idea of what things are like for Andrew, a special demonstration was set up to illustrate what being overwhelmed by sensory input is like. The boys were asked to complete a trigonometry test, hard enough by itself, but with the addition of strobe lights and constant sounds for competing phone ringtones. No one was able to concentrate and finish the quiz.
Everyone has things they’re good at and things that are challenging for them. What this exercise showed the boys was that people with autism have to do their challenging activity 24/7. Without a place like the Star Room, there’s no way for them to regroup to put their best effort forward.
As the program unfolds, we will take what we learn to develop and refine it. Next year it will be open to other children and ultimately become a program that other school counselors can use wherever there’s the need.