TRAVERSE CITY — Alissa Topping leaned across a work table and rolled a puppet sock over Derrick Hall’s outstretched arm. Hall giggled at the silly “cat,” looking back at him.
Topping couldn’t help but smile and laugh along with Hall’s reaction.
“He’s always happy,” said Topping, 17, a senior Traverse City West Senior High student and Hall’s “mentor” through the school’s new Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Program for Students with Autism. “Normally you don’t get to meet people like him outside the peer group. He’s so fun to be around.”
The pilot program matches volunteer student-mentors with student-peers — both West students and Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District students housed at West — who have autism.
Mentors meet with their peers twice a week during their 30-minute advisory period. Their goal: to help their peers strengthen their social skills and work on individual goals like verbal communication and self-regulating behavior through games, art, field trips and other projects.
“They have the same peer buddies all year,” said Dan Rice, a West AP psychology teacher and one of the program’s two coordinators. “The idea was to be a friend so peers with autism have someone their own age to understand them. Otherwise they’re surrounded by adults — teachers and aides — all day.”
Rice said the program is an outgrowth of a 2012-13 psychology class project in which his students interacted with autistic students in order to learn more about cognition and language. Now the program involves more than 40 general education student-mentors and about 30 West and TBA student-peers with autism or other social challenges.
The psychology project sparked Brian Jean’s interest in learning more about autism spectrum disorder. Now he and fellow West senior Amanda Fouchey are mentors to Guy Morey, 21, a TBA student who communicates largely through body language. During a recent visit the three worked together to create sets and props for an upcoming puppet show.