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Lessons of Friendship Teach Diversity, Altruism and Increased Self Esteem

When typical kids are empowered with the knowledge to understand children with autism and other developmental disabilities, they react in a totally different way than they would otherwise. A program developed by The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) staff members Nila Benito and Marjorie Russell is helping to provide that knowledge.

Friendship For All is a training tool that teaches typical kids to practice kindness, compassion and new ways of interaction with children with development disabilities. By becoming coaches and role models, whether in the classroom, playground, ball field or in social gatherings, friendships form during the positive interactions that occur.

The current trend toward inclusive classrooms places children with developmental disabilities in regular education classes. It is important that typical kids have been given training so that they are aware of, and sensitive to, the special needs of children with disabilities.

"The workshops offer ideas and tips that have worked in schools, communities, and with families, and they serve only as an introduction, a starting place," stated Marjorie Russell. "One of the most critical pieces to ensuring friendship connections is to give information to typical kids so that they can learn at an early age the world is full of individuals with diverse needs. When typical children are placed in situations where they are the role models and problem solvers, it's amazing how they are able to contribute."

In an example given in the Friendship for All information kit, one boy with severe disabilities participating in an inclusive classroom refused to wear his hearing aids for several days. As a way to demonstrate to him that everyone has to wear special equipment of some sort, his new circle of friends decided to bring their orthodontic retainers, eyeglasses, and soccer shin guards to school, and after that, he began to wear his hearing aids again.

"Seventy-five percent of what we learn socially in schools stays with us our entire life," added Marjorie. "If schools could develop a curriculum telling about diversity and the value of others, they would provide invaluable lessons for everyone."

This summer, CARD staff including Nila Benito, Selena Bustamante and Marjorie Russell are providing training at the Learning Gate Charter School summer program to staff and campers. Four children with autism will attend the all inclusive summer program, and while supports will be provided for them, the Friendship For All training will be given to all children attending, as well as the camp counselors.

"We hope to gain as much experience as possible so that other schools can use the model for their extended year programs. We see this program being a tremendous learning experience for all the campers and staff," added Marjorie. "We have high hopes of using the model to ensure grant funding for the year 2001." For additional information, contact NilaBenito at 974-7875.

CARD is located within the Department of Child and Family Studies (CFS), a division of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida. Since its inception in 1984, the Institute's mission has been to improve service delivery systems for children with serious emotional or behavioral disabilities and their families. For addtional information, visit the RTC website at http://card-usf.fmhi.usf.edu/

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