By Aundreana Jones-Poole
Holt Journal Staff Reporter
A program at Holt High School is changing the lives of general education students and their disabled peers.
The LINKS program is a peer-to-peer support program that was implemented by The START program at Grand Valley State University to provide help to students with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other disabilities.
The help comes from other high school students. The students who provide support are called “LINKS.” They have the option of enrolling in the program as an elective.
“I took it as an elective because I had heard good things about it and I thought it sounded interesting,” said Kaleigh Schavey, a former LINK participant at Holt High School.
According to Maureen Ziegler, Autism Education and Intervention Specialist for the START project, students who choose to be LINKS can receive elective credit while learning a curriculum based on Autism internet modules.
“The program uses college credit material in a high school setting,” said Ziegler.
According to Ryan Anderson, a LINKS coordinator and teacher at Holt High School, the program isn’t necessarily aimed at helping the disabled students academically, but to help them in knowing how to behave and socialize in a high school setting.
“I give them (the LINKS) a list of things that are and aren’t the job of a LINK,” said Anderson. “The main goal of the LINK is to help them with independence and to feel safe in high school and to teach them the unwritten rules of high school.”
Schavey said that the impact of the LINKS program was deeper than just modeling how the students should behave and helping them with school-based things.
“I think that the students in the program gained a friend and someone they could trust,” said Schavey. “Whether they’re in that class together or at lunch or in the hall, they know that they can walk up to you and have a conversation with a friend of theirs that will always be there for them.”
According to Anderson, research has found that kids with autism want to be like their peers. Anderson believes that the program simply works because the student LINKS can provide an element that wouldn’t be as effective coming from adults.
“Adults kind of act as a barrier with kids,” said Anderson. “It just looks more comfortable for the students to be paired with someone their own age.”
The LINKS program not only benefits the students with ASD or other disorders, but the general education students that participate as well.
According to the START website, research has shown that at-risk students who participate as LINKS show improvement in their GPAs and attendance as soon as their first semester as participants.
According to Ziegler, the LINKS program is a win-win for both general education and special education students.
“Changes with at risk kids are much bigger because they feel more connected to the school,” said Ziegler.
Ziegler believes that the LINKS program unites students who otherwise wouldn’t have much in common in a unique way.
“A cross section of students is what you’re looking for, athletes, honors, at risk; it breaks down the clicks,” said Ziegler. “Students who would never hang out get to come together.”
According to Schavey, this was one additional benefit to her involvement in the program.
“Being a part of LINKS showed me that you’re capable of making friends with anyone and honestly, as cliché as it sounds, not to judge a book by its cover,” said Schavey.
According to Ziegler, the program has long term implications for the general education students socially and professionally.
“When they run across people with autism they aren’t intimidated,” said Ziegler. “As the LINKS are getting training they learn to deal with people with autism, which can also help them get jobs in the future.”
Schavey agrees that involvement as a LINK has helped her see special education students in a way that she never has before.
“I never thought that you could make such a bond with kids who have special needs,” said Schavey. “Being a LINK and being paired with different kids has made me really feel like I had a bond that was irreplaceable.”