Students develop bond, gain appreciation while mentoring autistic youngsters

Trying to crack through the maze of an autistic mind is no easy task. Doctors and scientists have been working on this for years with some success, but no one has truly cracked the code.

Pat Tegge ’14 (Glenshaw, Pa.), along with four other Marietta College peer mentors, may not have any concrete answers but they did learn first-hand this fall what it was like to interact and teach students with autism as peer mentors in the Social Skills and Transition program.

“Going into the course I was excited to get into the field and help make a difference, and a little nervous,” Tegge says. “Prior to this class I had worked with people with autism and other disabilities but not this intensely.”

Tegge was teamed with Carsyn Cunningham and the two developed a strong connection.

“After working with Carsyn all of my anxiety went away. We had a lot of fun together and learned from each other,” says Tegge, a History major. “I learned several lessons that I am going to take with me. I was exposed to several different ranges on the spectrum so I learned some strategies on how to help children with their individual needs and goals.”

Marietta’s Dr. William Bauer, McCoy Associate Professor of Education, partnered with Dr. Christopher Klein, Assistant Professor of Psychology, to create a program that helps improve the communication skills of people with high-functioning forms of autism as they make the transition from high school to college.

Autism is a brain disorder in which makes communication with other difficult. Often referred to as Asperger’s syndrome, these individuals have difficulty understanding the emotions of those around them, reading facial expressions and body language, thus have difficulty carrying normal conversation.

“Dr. Bauer and I started this program in hopes of making some immediate, everyday life changes for the individuals in the program,” Klein says. “We’ve worked on a number of skills, including building relationships, verbal and nonverbal communication, diet and healthy living activities, self-disclosure, and a number of other topics.”

In a session in November, Marietta students Tyler Bates ’13 (Smithville, Ohio), Zane Eschbaugh ’13 (Marietta, Ohio), Evan Gongwer ’16 (Loudonville, Ohio) and Tyler Sorber ’13 (Warren, Ohio) spoke with Antonio Clatworthy, Landon Santini, Zach Strickler, Matt Waybright and Cunningham about their favorite exercise routines and seeking out healthier diet options.

Clatworthy talked about cutting firewood and bowling, while others said they liked basketball and golf.

“Throughout the semester, we’ve seen some of our individuals gain a larger social support network, improve in communication skills, develop a greater sense of self-determination, and realize a number of opportunities that previously seemed closed to them,” Klein says. “We certainly aren’t aiming to cure autism in this program, but I do believe we have had success in helping the individuals in the program make some important improvements in their everyday lives.”

Bauer adds, “The 253 field students in this project worked very hard this semester with these young men. The comments from parents have been overwhelming positive.”

Mother Tammy Waybright says the impact of the program on her son, Matthew, has been “100 percent positive.”

“Matthew’s growth socially and intellectually is astounding to his family and everyone who knows him. His self-confidence has increased as well as eye contact and conversation skills,” she says. “He actually initiates conversations, including physical contact, which was nonexistent prior to this program. We cannot praise Dr. Bauer and his associates enough. A simple thank you will never be enough to express our joy and satisfaction with this program.”

This is exactly what Bauer was hoping to see when he and Klein collaborated on this project.

“We have seen significant progress in our participants social skills. Our education and psychology interns/field students have been phenomenal in their quest to assist these participants become better self advocates and self determined,” Bauer says. “The partnership with the participants parents has also been key to the success of this program.”

Erika Gill ’15 (Akron, Ohio), also a peer mentor, was a bit apprehensive when she first learned she would be working with an autistic student. Her biggest fear was if she could remain patient while trying to communicate with them.

“From the beginning I knew this course would be a good cause, but I never imagined how beneficial to the students it would be. To be completely honest, I did not quite grasp how a course taking place only once a week for two hours could impact a student so drastically, but now I stand in complete awe,” says Gill, a Middle Childhood Education major. “After working with the students, I have learned how much the small things matter, and by small things I mean the smiles, the encouragement, and the patience. Simply being a friend to each student engages them to build trust and in turn listen to everything you have to say. From there they learn and grow.”

She believes the experience has helped her and her classmates see past society’s perspectives on people with disabilities.

“I used to think that working with individuals who have disabilities involved some complex scientific protocol to properly teach or make an impact on them, but the simplicity of this course has made me understand that there is no special technique in reaching out to them, all it takes is to be a friend,” Gill says. “This is why I find the part of the program where the peer mentors hang out with their paired student to be the key part to the success of this program; for a student does indeed learn more outside of the classroom compared to inside the classroom.”

The only scientific formula was to listen and interact.

“There is an equal and opposite impact between the teacher and the student,” Gill says. “As a student grows as a person, so does the teacher (and vice-versa). I believe I have made a positive impact on my student because he certainly has made an everlasting, positive impact on me.”