Studies show that students with autism respond better to their peers than to teachers and other adults. Stacey Van Laan, a teacher at Jenison Junior High School, decided to apply these findings to provide a better learning experience in her own classroom.

"I knew that my students with autism needed more peer-based interaction," Stacey says. "Jenison truly is behind their autism program, and behind how best to support their students with autism."

She modified a Grand Valley State University program called GVSU START to best fit Jenison Junior High’s curriculum, resulting in the LINKS program. LINKS allows Jenison students to take a class with her to learn about autism and how to interact with fellow students who have autism.

"I teach them about people with autism and how they are people just like us, and we work through bullying and different aspects of junior high life when it applies to autism," Stacey explains.

They also are given the opportunity to work with autistic students on a one-on-one basis, helping them to stay organized, teaching them independence and social skills, and assisting them with their academics. The students taking the class, meanwhile, gain real-world teaching experience.

"I’m helping somebody that I never really thought I could help before, and I’m changing somebody’s life," says Jenison Junior High School student Kailey McCarty.

Kailey’s mother says the experience has been as big a boon for her daughter as for the student she helped.

"Junior high can be a difficult place, the peer pressure – fitting in and belonging," Nancy McCarty says. "Being a part of the LINKS program took that completely away for Kailey. She so looked forward to going to school and being a part of the program for what she could give. But she got so much more in return."

Principal Brett Cataldo sees the tremendous impact that the LINKS program has on all students involved.

"The big advantage with the LINKS program is the fact that we have a teacher that’s able to train our general education students on how to best work with the students that have autism," Brett says. "When you have kids that are passionate about something, they’re able to get the education about it, understand further and deeper about it, it has more meaning and more value."

For the students who sign up for the LINKS program, the relationship with their peers with autism goes beyond the classroom.

"They consider my students in my classroom – who for the most part are nonverbal – their friends, and they look out for them, they fight for them and sit with them at lunch because they want to," Stacey says. "It’s created a really cool, true bond."

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