LIVINGSTON, NJ - A special after-school program is bringing together eighth grade students at Heritage Middle School (HMS )in Livingston and students from The Children’s Institute (TCI) who are on the autistic spectrum.
TCI Middle School students visit Heritage Middle School once a week and play sports and board games and socialize with about 15 eighth grade students.
“The program is beneficial to the TCI kids who make new friends, become more comfortable in new situations,” said TCI After-School Program Coordinator Daniela DiCarlo. “It is also beneficial to Livingston teens who gain a broader understanding of students on the spectrum and how to be with them. Some students have a special needs sibling or are interested in becoming special education teachers,” she said.
“Children with autism can face distinct challenges in socialization, which can place them at a high risk for being excluded by their peers,” DiCarlo said. “TCI tries to provide our students with a high-quality interaction with their typically developing peers.”
“The goal of our program is to not only motivate our students to socialize but to motivate autistic students and their peers from Heritage Middle School to socialize with each other,” DiCarlo said. “We provide programs like this in the hopes that it will increase the opportunity for our students to experience positive social interaction with their peers. Our hope is that because of programs like this, our students are more likely to get involved in activities in their communities with their peers and build confidence.”
The program also benefits Heritage Middle School students because it exposes typical students to students with special needs and helps them gain a better understanding of these students,” DiCarlo said.
“The TCI after-school program is a service opportunity for Heritage students to help other children with social and academic challenges,” said Heritage Middle School Principal Pat Boland. “It has become a window of reflection for our students. They learn sensitivity towards others and appreciation for the gifts that they have. They also learn that reaching out to others brings a great deal of satisfaction and a greater perspective of what ‘a real problem is.’ I have seen the faces of both the TCI and Heritage students light up, or, the students share a ‘high-five’ as they successfully complete an activity or game. The gift they give each other is invaluable.”
Many students said they enjoyed participating in the program and look forward to the weekly sessions. One TCI student called the Heritage students “awesome” and said that he enjoys spending time with all of his new friends. In a recent session, TCI Physical Education teacher Bogdan Protas led the students in team-building tag games in the school cafeteria. The students also chatted as they made jewelry and played cards and board games.
“I think this is a wonderful program,” said Jessica Rossilli, an eighth grader at Heritage. “It helps me learn more about the (TCI) kids and how to relate to them.”
Jessica participates in a Saturday program in Livingston where she volunteers to help special needs kids learn to play sports. “I have learned that they are just like any other student,” she said. “TCI students learn how to interact with us and we are not much different from them.”
Heritage eighth grader Bridget Carlson said she enjoys making new friends. “It is fun because we get to be with our friends and with the TCI kids while we are playing games,” she said. “I think we are learning how to interact with special needs kids. We love learning how to talk to them.”
Anna Levy, an eighth grader at Heritage Middle School, said she also enjoys the TCI program “because it is fun trying to get to know the kids and make new friends.”
“It is really cool,” said Sabrina Ngan, an eighth grader at Heritage. “I have never had the opportunity before to get to know them. They are different, but they are like anybody else.”
“TCI educators come to Heritage Middle School before the program starts to offer a special training program for Heritage students who would like to participate in the program,” DiCarlo said. Earlier this spring, DiCarlo and TCI speech language pathologist Suzy Glazer provided them with a background and an understanding of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“We talk about some of the challenges our students face when it comes to communication, socialization and repetitive behavior,” DiCarlo said, noting that she talks to the Heritage students about the TCI students participating in the program and some of their interests.
“On the first day, we have an Ice Breaker activity/Speed Social where the students get together and share information as well as their common interests,” DiCarlo said. “All the students in the program are introduced to each other and spend time with each student for a few minutes. In the beginning, TCI staff help facilitate the group in conversation and activities, but as the program progresses and students from both school become more comfortable, they are able to successfully interact on their own and the staff members are no longer involved. The interaction between the TCI and HMS students unfolds naturally.”