Many schools have a peer-to-peer program in the middle and/or high schools. These peer-to-peer programs are where a typically developing student is linked with a student with special needs. At our school this program is called Connect. Wil, who is in 7th grade, has been linked with two high school students, a male and a female.
Wil adores his Connect friends. They visit him during his Independent Life Skills time in the resource room. They work with him on projects, crafts and cooking. He most especially enjoys cooking with his Connect friends. It’s been an enriching experience for Wil to work with his Connect friends, and I believe for his Connect friends to work with him. On days when Wil is feeling unmotivated, his teachers will remind him he is seeing his Connect friends, and that will–on most days–perk him up.
Being in 7th grade is an interesting time for most students. Their bodies are changing, their hormones are firing, and their independence is sought. Wil is no different. His assertion for independence has him taking a few liberties with his Connect friends. He may pick up one of their spoons and throw it on the floor. Or give them a hug then mess up their hair. He’s pushing the boundaries, and also looking for attention. If he were a typical student throwing a friend’s spoon on the floor, or messing their hair, he’d get a “Hey, what did you do that for?” However, kids with special needs tend to get some extra latitude. Wil may get a laugh, rather than a reprimand. Or his behavior will go ignored as the kids simply do not know what to say. His typical peers want to be kind, and fear upsetting him.
I completely understand this, it can be complicated with the communication differences. Wil is not in elementary school anymore. Kids talk a lot faster, there is lightening back and forth processing, and Wil can feel lost in the sea of back and forth communication. A toss of a spoon, or a mess of the hair takes all of that back-and-forth and draws it to a halt. He gets the reaction he was looking for, everyone is kind and thinks, “Oh that’s just Wil,” and moves on.
If you decide to have a dialogue with Wil about why this is wrong and not respectful to friends, you will see his attention wander and probably before you are done talking, he’ll have tossed your spoon again. If you get upset with Wil, he may cry or shut down. He hears and feels the anger and takes this as an attack on his person rather than a correction of the act. A straightforward and firm, “Please do not do that. That’s my spoon, I was eating with it.” Or “Please do not mess my hair. I don’t like it.” He’ll understand that you don’t like it and why in just a few short words. I can’t promise he won’t do it again, but it will come to a halt the more that is said with each instance. And most importantly, he is being treated and respected like a peer.
This is why Wil’s relationship with his sisters is very beneficial. Basically, they don’t put up with his crap. If he does something like talking with his mouth full, Katherine will say, “Wil, that is gross. Babies do that.”
“I’m not a baby!” He will yell back. And that’s the end of that.
Or if he is badgering his sisters for attention, they will change gears with the power of distraction. “Hey Wil, let’s go walk Woody.” They will remind him to get his boots on, that it’s muddy. On the walk, Wil will find every big stick he can and show it to them. His sisters will ooooh and ahhhh at first, then growing tired of it, they will tell him that’s enough.
In that way, he learns boundaries just as naturally as anyone else does.
In many ways Wil is like any typical peer. When he is misbehaving, that misbehavior should be commented on and corrected. When he’s getting annoying by repeating an action over and over, he should be told, ok, dude, that was cool at first but now that’s enough.
Sounds simple, right? So why doesn’t it happen? Wil acts younger in many ways, so it’s easy to treat him younger. Wil is very sweet, he loves unconditionally, so his friends don’t want to hurt his feelings. All of those reasons are completely understandable. Back when I was that age, I would have done the same thing. That is also what makes these situations excellent learning opportunities. Just this morning Wil gave me a hug and started messing with my hair. I pulled out of his hug, looked at him and said, “Wil, I love your hugs. But please do not mess with my hair, or anyone’s hair. People don’t like that.”
“Ok, Mom.” He stopped messing with my hair and gave me another hug. He will likely mess with my hair again on another occasion, when he is feeling feisty. I will again say the same thing in the same way. Eventually he will stop doing it. It can take multiple reminders before he decides to respect those boundaries. Sometimes it takes just one. But the important point is the boundaries need to be set.
Wil’s Connect friends are learning how to set boundaries with Wil and Wil is learning how to respect their boundaries. What it comes down to is mutual respect amongst peers, no matter what the similarities or differences are among them. This Connect program carries with it the essential life skills of working with varying abilities and personalities with care, firmness, kindness and respect. And this crew is proving what a great time you can have doing just that.