Autistic students have 'buddies' at Northeastern

Junior Gonzalez
  • Students with Autism at Northeastern Middle School are given special opportunities to socialize with peers.
  • The program, started by principal Michael Alessandroni and Autism York, takes students on trips throughout the year.
  • An advisor said she has seen significant growth and maturation from students just in the past school year.

In the hot and muggy bleachers of Northeastern High School’s natatorium Wednesday sat seven excited students in swimwear and towels.

As they were told the rules for swimming in the school’s two pools by Northeastern aquatics teacher Hope Kowalewski, some had grins on their faces and stared impatiently at the pool.

The students preparing to enjoy the pool were youths involved in the Northeastern Middle School Buddy Program, which provides opportunities for students on the autism spectrum to engage in social gatherings with “buddies,” or other students in the school, throughout the year.

The program was started five years ago by Northeastern Middle School Principal Michael Alessandroni with the help of Autism York. It has since helped dozens of students on the autism spectrum work on communication skills and develop friendships with other youths.

Northeastern Middle School seventh-graders Caleb Olver and Camren Ellenberger, left, clown around in the high school pool during the school's Buddies program Wednesday, May 24, 2017. The program gives students on the autism spectrum, like Camren, a chance to socialized with classmates who are not. Bill Kalina photo

Buddies: Alessandroni said some of the students who volunteer to serve as buddies have family members with special needs.

All of them, he said, "are extremely compassionate, nice kids.”

One of the buddies, Caleb Olver, said he enjoys the program because it helps kids with special needs feel more accepted.

“It’s special to them because they normally don’t get to do this stuff,” he said.

Another buddy, Aspen Miller, said she has a cousin with autism, and as soon as she heard about the program she signed up as fast as she could.

“I’ve always wanted to help students who didn’t feel like they belonged,” she said.

Aspen also said that although the program was a great stress-reliever from the regular school day, she finds it to be much more than a volunteer activity.

“I get the chance to spend time with a group of friends,” she said. “There’s such a sense of togetherness.

'Natural interest': Alessandroni's daughter Aubrey, 11, was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old.

“I would like to say I was shocked, but being in the (education) field for 24 years, I saw the signs,” he said.

After learning of the diagnosis, Alessandroni said, his biggest worry was for Aubrey to live happily and autonomously.

“The first thing I thought to myself was, 'How could she live an independent, rewarding life?'” he said.

Alessandroni immediately began to engage with Autism York, an organization he credits with spreading information and awareness to countless people about the prevalence of autism in the county.

An organization created by Alessandroni and his wife called Aubrey’s Angels raises money for Autism York. To date, Alessandroni said, Aubrey’s Angels has raised more than $30,000 for the organization.

After a few years of strong engagement with the special needs community, Alessandroni said he came to have a “natural interest” in having such a program for his students at Northeastern Middle School.

Since then, he said, the buddy program has had dozens of students come away more socially prepared for high school.

The program has about six trips throughout the school year, including an ice cream social at Mack’s Ice Cream, bowling, laser tag, snow tubing, playing games with senior citizens and Wednesday’s swimming trip.

Northeastern Middle School seventh-grader Caleb Olver and eighth-grader Jackson Wigginton, left, chase the basketball in the high school pool during the school's Buddies program Wednesday, May 24, 2017. The program gives students on the autism spectrum, like Jackson, a chance to socialized with classmates who are not. Bill Kalina photo

'Amazing' growth: Jackson Wigginton, an eighth-grader at Northeastern Middle School, is one of the six regular attendants in the buddy program who are in the autism spectrum.

He said he has had fun in the program during the two years he has been a part of it and especially enjoyed the swimming trip — the last trip of the year.

He did, however, leave the natatorium holding onto his stomach and chest after nasty belly flop in the diving pool.

"I'll feel better," he said.

Similar sentiments about the program were given by Camren Ellenberger, another student on the spectrum in the buddy program. Camren said he looks forward to participating in buddy events next year.

Jen Yelinek, an adviser with the program, said she has noticed a big change in several of the students with autism through the program just since she joined the program in October.

“Just watching them foster these conversations with people and seeing the growth and maturity (over the past school year) is amazing,” she said.

Yelinek taught special education for more than 10 years and said she is grateful that the district has such a program for students with the condition.

“This program is near and dear to my heart,” she said.