Pitfalls of Peer mentoring: how effective is it really?

Christine Silak ‘22, Business/Ad and Circulations Manager

April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, and SLHS is showing their support by selling colorful puzzle pieces that can be sported as a pin on students’ shirts. Junior Nick Tsitinis said “This month means a lot to me and many students at South Lyon… This April I hope you take the time to learn about students with autism and find ways to include us through accepting our unique personalities.”

Our cafeteria windows are lined with ‘Peer-isms’ guiding students with ways to show respect and support to the Autism community. In light of the topic of autism and other students who need help on the social spectrum, it has sparked conversations about how exactly our school assists people with autism and what we are doing as a school to make our learning environment better for all students. Peers edvisor Corntey Hindersnam said “The pins that you see are all pins that have been made by PEERS and their mentors outside of school on their own time… my hope is that we can sell out so that in April we can all wear them to show our acceptance and awareness of autism spectrum disorder in our school.” 

More and more schools, including SLHS, are incorporating PEERS (The Program for the Education and the Enrichment of Relational Skills) programs into their education systems. Here at SLHS, Mrs. Hindersman leads the program and trains students to become PEERS. While the program is world-renowned for providing “evidence based social skills treatment to preschoolers, adolescents, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)”, perhaps PEERS support is more of an umbrella term that generalizes students with ASD into a single group and applies the same mentorship to students that need more specific individual help. 

In theory, and sometimes even in practice, PEERS can prove to be very valuable and rewarding to both the mentor and mentee involved. However, the idea that a student, with a week of training, can accomplish anything close to what a trained and certified adult can do with a child on the ASD spectrum seems far off. (maybe Hindersman will email back with our school’s specific training program) In fact, it seems that PEERS programs are evolving into such a great responsibility for the PEERS that they are doing work that should be really done by adults. An anonymous PEERS mentor said, “PEERS is becoming a greater and greater responsibility as I try to help kids that need far greater help than anything I could ever provide.”  Conceivably, a program once designed to supplement IEPs has evolved seemingly to replace them.

This idea provokes the question: how can PEERS programs remain effective without being overutilized by schools to fill gaps in the education system that should be filled by adults? The answer is, there is not. In part, this is because there are not enough conversations happening about what is really going on in PEERS programs. In fact, most people turn a blind eye to the autism community as a whole, let alone their specific education practice. It is fair to say that the majority of students don’t even communicate with people on the ASD spectrum at all on a regular basis, even though we share the same school, hallways, and community. In light of autism acceptance month, it seems a good time to get these conversations started.

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