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When I finally thought to ask my student what he needed – the answer changed our lives!

In 2011, as part of a Masters in Education (Special Needs) I was required to complete a case study on one student. The student I chose was then in Year 6 at a co-educational primary school his name is Richard.

Richard was diagnosed with high functioning autism at age 3, largely because his mother is a medical practitioner and identified his condition herself. Due largely to his mother’s diligence and determination Richard has participated in several early intervention programs, including speech and play therapy. Richard has attended a mainstream primary school since Prep and made good academic progress, he had the support of a full-time teacher’s aide from Years Prep-4. In Years 5 and 6, Richard continued to receive support from the school’s special education staff but the decision was made to remove the aide to increase his independence prior to commencing secondary school.

Academically Richard is gifted. By the end Year 6 he was working at Year 11 level in Mathematics, had completed Grade 6 Piano exams and is fluent in both Mandarin and English. He completed the Year 5 Naplan Mathematics paper in 20 minutes and his result was at the very top of the bar graph.

However, Richard continued to struggle emotionally and socially at school.

Therefore, as part of my case study I worked with Richard to put in place targeted supports. These included a visual timetable, the use of a range of social stories to support him in sports lessons and in settling to work in class and the introduction of a stress thermometer for Richard to use in self-managing his anxiety.
You can learn more about these strategies and many more in our upcoming seminars.

Richard responded immediately to this support and his ability to manage his day at school and at sport sessions, improved dramatically. He was I believed a happier and more successful student and this belief was reflected in the universally positive feedback from staff. Satisfied with Ricard’s progress I felt happy that Richard could now begin his journey into Year 7, brilliantly supported by all these great strategies.

But I was so wrong.

I had failed to do the one thing we tell every teacher to do, I had never asked Richard what he needed.

At the start of Year 7, I finally took the time to sit down and ask Richard what he needed and he told me the one thing that I had forgotten: “New friends are essential”.

Professor Maureen Neihart told us this repeatedly at the 2010 Asia Pacific Gifted Conference and her work had inspired my learning about all the other strategies used with Richard.

Yet Richard was failing at the one goal no staff member, parent or student had even considered for him.  The one goal he was striving for was put simply in his own words “I am aiming to be a politer person and get more friends.”  Yet Richard’s efforts were not working and this troubled him deeply and no one had even noticed.

And this is what Richard wanted us to do: “Teach my friends so they can help me.”

I will answer basic questions in a flash – I have a lot of favorite things so what is your favorite thing is a hard question.”

Richard was right, he just needed friends, so this is what we did…

Remembering an article I had read by Professor Deslea Konza, “Secondary school success for students with Asperger ‘s Syndrome”, and working with the school psychologist and the Year 7 level coordinator, we decided to establish for Richard a “Circle of Friends.”

You can download our free “Guide to setting up a Circle of Friends” in our resource library.

The Circle of Friends for Richard was established in Term 1, 2012. Briefly, this is a group of students including Richard who met weekly to establish social supports.

To establish Richard’s Circle, we invited a variety of students, a quirky boy who no one had quite worked out yet, a new girl just arrived from Singapore, a student who had just had a dramatic falling out with her peers, several smart kids who were liked but by no means popular, two exceptionally cool guys and three lovely gentle students who were desperate to be House Captains but hadn’t been elected.

For these students we ran a session (with Richard and his parent’s permission) where I explained Autism Spectrum Disorder and then Richard’s particular quirks especially his stilted use of language and the strategies we already had in place to support him. Following the session every student voted to commit to the Circle.

The Circle met weekly for the whole of 2012 and culminated in a Year 7 Talent Quest run by these great kids. There are so many stories, laughs and experiences from that special group. Every student learnt more than you could imagine, as did we all. It was a privilege to learn with them and to see inclusion happening every day not just in meetings on Monday lunchtimes.

At the end of Year 7 2012, I asked Richard if the Circle of Friends had helped him… and he took my hand and just said:

“Thank-you for doing this for me.”

That Circle of Friends didn’t only change Richard’s life it taught students who were good kids to be great kids. This year the “Circle of Friends” students are in Year 12, last term Richard attended the formal. I was privileged to see a video of him dancing wildly with his mates – the video is gold.

Six of the 12 members are now Prefects, Richard is just another Year 12 student doing his thing and talking to his friends on Facebook and in this school, he is accepted and valued.

Richard is a success because he told us what he needed and we listened. I will forever be grateful for the honesty of a young man on the autism spectrum, who with his honesty changed the lives of all the people who joined us on this journey.

And that is why at NESTS strategy one will forever be ASK?

Click here for the Guide to setting up a Circle of Friends in our free resource library.

How will you use Circle of Friends to help in your educational setting?

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