Paraeducators' Roles in Facilitating Friendships between Secondary Students with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders or Developmental Disabilities

Article excerpt

In the cafeteria at East High School the two larger, circular tables to the left were apparently the tables informally designated for the students labeled with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Joshua sat in his wheelchair at one of the tables with another young man in a wheelchair, one male student and one female student each with Down syndrome, and three other students. Two paraeducators sat at the next table over watching the students closely. The nearest students without disabilities were a few tables away. There seemed to be a barrier of empty or mostly empty tables between the two groups of students. Stephanie was the only student without a disability to venture close to the tables, high-fiving Joshua and telling him that she would see him after her next class. The students labeled with intellectual and developmental disabilities had all finished their lunches and waited quietly for the bell. The other students moved constantly, throwing food, laughing, smiling, and running by in pairs or small groups.

Stephanie later explained this apparent divide:

They istudents without disabilities] see that they istudents labeled with intellectual and developmental disabilities] are different and they feel threatened by them or scared when they are around them because they don 't know what to do and stuff. They [students labeled with intellectual and developmental disabilities) are usually alone at lunch at their own table all the time and everyone knows it so they stay away and just talk about them. It would be better if they could just eat with all of us and make it not so weird.

Like others their age, teenagers labeled with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or other developmental disabilities (DD) want friends in their lives, yet this rarely happens. Researchers and people with disabilities through autobiographies and memoirs report that many people labeled with ASD or other developmental disabilities are lonely (Amado, 2004; CaustonTheoharis, Ashby, & Cosier, 2009; Jobling, Mont, & Nolan, 2000; McVilly, Stancliffe. Parmenter, & Burton-Smith, 2006a, 2006b), that the only people in their lives are paid to be there (Jorgensen, Schuh, & Nisbet, 2006; Strully & Strully, 1985), and that what they want most of all is a friend (Biklen. 2005; Causton-Theoharis et al., 2009; Gillingham & McClennen, 2003). Much of the literature suggests that friendships and social interactions between students labeled with ASD or other developmental disabilities and students without disabilities are more prevalent during the elementary years than in secondary school settings (Carter & Hughes, 2005; Cutts & Sigafoos, 2001; Staub, 1998; Strully & Strully, 1984, 1985). How can educators help students achieve friendships in today's inclusive high schools? Who is responsible for and available to help facilitate friendships between high school students with and without ASD or other developmental disabilities?

Much has been written on the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators in inclusive classrooms related to instruction (Causton-Theoharis, Giangreco, Doyle, & Vadasy, 2007; Patterson, 2006), behavioral support (Marks, Schrader, & Levine, 1999), and their supervision by general and special educators (Carnhan, Williamson. Clarke, & Sorenson, 2009; Pickett, 2008; Wallace, Shin, Bartholomay, & Stahl, 2001). Paraeducators are defined as school support staff who work under the direction of a certified teacher and assist students with instruction , social/emotional/behavioral skills, and sometimes, personal care. Paraeducators are also known by terms such as teacher assistant, aide, and paraprofessional (Pickett, 2008). Few authors have focused primarily on the specific opportunities for paraeducators to help facilitate friendships between students without disabilities and students labeled with ASD or other developmental disabilities, especially at the high school level. …