2018-04-08 / Insight

Lapeer class aims to provide ‘LINKS’ for people with autism

810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

Lindsey Lovelette (left), a Lapeer High School senior, Stacy Sahr, teacher consultant, special education teacher and co-coordinator of the LINKS program at Lapeer High School, (center), and Senior Zachary Jolly (right). 
Photo by Andrew Dietderich Lindsey Lovelette (left), a Lapeer High School senior, Stacy Sahr, teacher consultant, special education teacher and co-coordinator of the LINKS program at Lapeer High School, (center), and Senior Zachary Jolly (right). Photo by Andrew Dietderich LAPEER — When it comes to understanding the world of a person with autism spectrum disorder, 42 students at Lapeer High School are regularly trying to do so.

Through an elective class called “LINKS (Learning to Inspire New Kinds of Support),” students work every day in what is commonly known as a peer-to-peer support program.

In short, students provide guidance to “select students on the autism spectrum,” as well as others, to develop effective communication, problem-solving, responsibility, and leadership skills.

Yes, technically speaking, it’s a class.

For people with autism spectrum disorder, like Lindsey Lovelette, LINKS is much more.

“LINKS has helped me a lot,” said Lovelette, a senior at Lapeer High School. “It taught me how to open up to people and say how I feel because I’m not much of a social person, believe it or not.”

Lovelette went to prom last year. Soon, she’ll head with her classmates on a school trip to New York City.

She smiles when she talks about both.

Lovelette also smiles when talking about other activities that might be considered a bit less flashy and exciting by comparison, yet carry just as much meaning — going to a Friday night football game, or Great Lakes Crossing Outlets.

“Normally I wouldn’t have out with people just to hang out and stuff like that,” she said. “Normally I wouldn’t have gone out to eat with other people that I weren’t familiar with.”

LINKS has been a part of the Lapeer Community Schools’ landscape since 2009. It falls under the auspices of the Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) project that is funded by the Michigan Dept. of Education, Office of Special Education, and operated by Grand Valley State University’s Autism Education Center.

Stacy Sahr, teacher consultant, special education teacher and co-coordinator of the LINKS program at Lapeer High School, said there are 42 students (mentors) taking the elective course this year, up from 30 the previous school year.

Already, she says, students are asking about it for the 2018-19 school year. It’s reached a point where Sahr says it’s no longer necessary to try and recruit students because they seek out the program.

Sahr said as LINKS keeps growing in Lapeer, she envisions it potentially offering more: more at the elementary school level; more options for engagement during the summer months; more transitional services.

This year — through a two-year grant from the Lapeer Optimist Club — a LINKS program launched at Zemmer Middle School. Rolland- Warner gets it next year.

Sahr says the middle school versions are slightly different due to the obvious age difference amongst participants.

However, she says, the overall intent won’t be too different from the model used at Lapeer High School.

According to the course description, LINKS is “designed to provide mentor guidance to select students on the autism spectrum, students with cognitive impairments, and may include other disabilities as well as those students who may have difficulty with socialization. The LINKS students will develop effective communication, problem solving, responsibility and leadership skills.”

Students who take LINKS meet weekly with the LINKS teacher to learn about autism spectrum disorder, while the rest of the school week they attend class with their assigned student.

“LINKS (participants) are responsible for a weekly data sheet, reflecting on target student’s behaviors and progress within his/her classes, a weekly email reflecting on the weeks’ activities, two volunteer activities within the program to help spread disability awareness and the LINKS program and two outside of school activities with their target student,” according to the description.

The description further notes that, “Many target students have difficulty with social skills and lack daily living skills. Simple tasks like ordering food, giving directions, acting appropriately in a theatre and grocery shopping are extremely difficult or completely foreign to these students.

“Peer-to-peer communication and exposure to outside of school activities gives target students help in learning the necessary skills to be more successful upon graduation from high school,” the description notes.

Among other things, LINKS students have taken their mentees horseback riding, go-carting, out to eat, to high school sporting events, shopping as well as many other outside-ofschool activities.

Sahr said there are numerous benefits to having the program that are in addition to helping the students with autism spectrum disorder — specifically, teaching about acceptance and bullying.

“It breaks down those barriers,” Sahr said. “It helps with communication and understanding and compassion.’

Sahr said she has students who plan to seek degrees in education, specializing in special education, “because of this program.”

Lapeer High School Senior Zachary Jolly serves as a mentor in the program.

He said he plans to pursue social work studies when he starts college after graduation.

“I get out of it just learning how we’re different,” Jolly said. “How I think, how they think, and I just like helping them try to figure different things out.”

Sahr said it isn’t uncommon for her to sit and cry at videos made by LINKS participants like Jolly at the end of the school year.

The reason?

“Because it’s very touching and it is very emotional to watch them talk about how they’ve learned from the program,” she said. “It’s the only course that I know of that is people-oriented…that we have any more.”

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