Partners in Social Learning Peer mentoring by and for students with autism can offer social benefits to all involved. Here’s how one SLP makes it work. Have You Tried This?
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Have You Tried This?  |   March 01, 2018
Partners in Social Learning
Author Notes
  • Sharon Baum, MA, CCC-SLP, provides services privately and in a middle-school ASD Nest Program in the New York City Public Schools. She is also a freelance writer. sbaum.k@gmail.com
    Sharon Baum, MA, CCC-SLP, provides services privately and in a middle-school ASD Nest Program in the New York City Public Schools. She is also a freelance writer. sbaum.k@gmail.com×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Have You Tried This?
Have You Tried This?   |   March 01, 2018
Partners in Social Learning
The ASHA Leader, March 2018, Vol. 23, 42-43. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.23032018.42
The ASHA Leader, March 2018, Vol. 23, 42-43. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.23032018.42
I’ve heard the message from my students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) more than once: “You just don’t get it. What it really feels like to have autism. The sense of isolation.”
We as speech-language pathologists and educators obviously work hard to understand, to empathize. But, ultimately, these students are right. We can empathize, but we can’t completely “get it.”
In my more than five years of working with these students, I’ve wanted to find a way to help them feel less isolated, but my toolbox of strategies—oversized as it is—was simply not enough. Then, one afternoon, as I raced the bell to my therapy room, I nearly tripped over two students sitting in my doorway. I found a new answer.
As I opened my mouth, ready to admonish them for being late to their classes, I noticed a seventh-grader with ASD had his arm wrapped around a sixth-grader with ASD. He sat with him and said calming words until the meltdown subsided.
That’s when I knew I was going to experiment with a new teaching tool with my social groups. I felt my students would benefit from peer mentors who had experienced the same struggles, and were thus a relatable source of learning about social concepts.

I urged younger students to request an older student’s help during near-meltdown moments. Often, these interactions prevented meltdowns from escalating.

Getting started
I casually started mentioning the mentoring opportunity to my seventh- and eighth-graders during social groups. I explained that the first few sessions would focus on observing the younger students and collecting information on their strengths and social challenges. Many seventh- and eighth-graders juggle tightly booked schedules, so lunch was the only available time for mentoring.
The older students’ response—as well as that of their teachers and parents—was much more enthusiastic than I predicted. I was concerned about how younger students might perceive older student mentors, since many of my sixth-graders were often inflexible and leery of even slightly shifting the roles of teacher and student. I thought they might view older students as “bossy.”
Some of this happened, but many students welcomed the older students. They expressed satisfaction with having students with similar experiences try to help them.
In the beginning, the peer mentors would spontaneously assist students who appeared confused by a social concept or who “checked out” during social group. They explained how this could affect their performance in class and during social interactions. They shared strategies for reducing conflict with peers and authority figures. This arrangement evolved into our calling in mentors on an as-needed basis to help students with social struggles and peer conflicts.
In one case, a student felt that his peers were showing indifference to his thoughts by continuously interrupting. Meanwhile, his peers felt he was attempting to monopolize the conversation. Frustrated, the interrupted student asked me to call in an older student, whose teacher allowed him to leave class. The older student delivered validation and a perspective-taking explanation of ways the younger student could deal with his frustration.
We encouraged peer mentors to experiment with using social-thinking activities and problem- solving real-life social scenarios with younger students. Peer mentors also shared their email addresses and phone numbers, so that younger students could contact them when they needed immediate advice. I urged younger students to come to me and request an older student’s help during near-meltdown moments (assuming schedules allowed). Often, these interactions prevented meltdowns from escalating.

I was pleased to hear phrases such as, “Think about her perspective right now. Why do you think she’s upset?”

Two-way benefits
After running the program for the past three years, I’ve seen it go beyond its main mission of aiding younger students in distress. It also provides a valuable learning experience for peer mentors. In fact, some of the first to volunteer for the job have been those with the greatest social and communication difficulties.
Many have previously resented attending social groups, despite my attempts to motivate them. I noticed a positive shift in their social interactions: They used their social insight to reinforce social concepts with younger students during real-life social situations.
This shift was demonstrated in their feedback to younger students, as they made comments such as, “Man, you really should avoid doing that to your friend. It will make him upset and then no one will get what they want.” I was pleased to hear phrases such as, “Think about her perspective right now. Why do you think she’s upset?” and “We all have different opinions, and that’s OK.”
When asked about their experiences as peer mentors, older students reflected:
  • “I’ve always been good with kids, because when I was younger I used to go to a day care.”

  • “It’s more beneficial to use someone in the same program, because you have the same experiences (rather than taking someone who doesn’t have ASD).”

  • “I try to see what’s wrong in order to learn about them by looking at the problem and building on their interest.”

Many mentors observed that by including them in the program, I unknowingly capitalized on both their strengths and interests, as they were internally driven to help others. Many found it socially empowering, after previously feeling powerless in their own social groups. I realized how energizing it can be for students to feel valued. My usual means of engaging students is tapping into their interests—for example, video games, sports, or arts and crafts. Now I see how it benefits them to occupy a helpful role in someone else’s life.
I am eager to continue bridging communication between younger and older adolescent students with ASD, and have even started incorporating some of my peer mentors with my non-ASD students who struggle with language and cognition. The younger students benefit in social-pragmatic language and social-emotional domains because the older students speak their social language. And the older mentors benefit by reinforcing their social competencies and building their social confidence. These gains on both sides make peer mentoring invaluable for all our students.
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March 2018
Volume 23, Issue 3