Best Buddies Club Connects Autism Students With Peers At Burns Middle

Autism teacher, Donna Hart, and some of her Best Buddies students gather proudly around the golden pin, which they won for most outstanding chapter at a Best Buddies event in October. Best Buddies chapters from all over Hillsborough County participated in this bowl-a-thon.

The month of April is Autism Awareness Month. Best Buddies – a nationwide club dedicated to investing in the lives of autism students by connecting them with their peers outside of the classroom – has come, for the first year, to Burns Middle School. Burns, which recently won ‘the golden pin’ for Most Outstanding Chapter at a Best Buddies bowling event, called the bowl-a-thon, in October, is heading full-swing into Autism Awareness Month with several events planned for the buddies, like a Friendship Walk on Saturday, April 28, and a Friendship Ball with the other Best Buddies chapters in Hillsborough County.

Tonya Mathes, autism teacher at Burns, said her favorite thing about Best Buddies is “the friendships they’ve made.” Mathes said that one student, who had never talked on the phone before, now has regular phone conversations with his buddy. Not only is he building a friendship, but he’s also learning conversational skills.

Burns has 17 students with autism in its Best Buddies club and at least two to three peers per student. “Best Buddies benefits the peer buddies as well as my students,” said Donna Hart, also an autism teacher at Burns. “They come to school early for activities and never complain.” The students are encouraged to meet with their buddies at least once per week, which could include eating with them during lunch or greeting them in the hallways. “My favorite part about the club is being able to meet new friends and see old ones,” said Best Buddies student club member, Brianna Drane, grade 7.

During the month of March, Best Buddies is hosting a national campaign where students, faculty and staff alike, pledge to stop using the word “retard.” The campaign’s slogan is “Spread the Word to End the Word.” On Wednesday, March 7, Burns students, faculty and staff will be pledging by signing a banner during lunch.

Following the campaign in March is Autism Awareness Month in April, where Burns’ Best Buddies will not only be participating in the walk and prom with other Hillsborough County Best Buddies chapters, but will also be featuring the buddies and their peers on their morning show and reading a fact about autism every day.

“One thing I’ve learned from Best Buddies is that they’re [autism students] just like you and not to treat them any different,” said Bailey Lesperance, grade 8. This integration between the autism students and their peers outside the classroom has proved to be particularly beneficial for the autism students at Burns. “I see the students developing friendships on their own and saying ‘Hi’ to people they’ve never socialized with before. It’s not always about reading, writing and math,” commented Hart.

To learn more about the Best Buddies program, visit www.bestbuddies.org. For more knowledge on autism, see www.autismspeaks.com.