LAKEWOOD RANCH — Natalie Kornblum, 9, was one of 36 children trained this summer at Pinnacle Academy to work with peers who are autistic.
At Thursday’s end-of-summer pizza appreciation party for these volunteer “peer educators,” Natalie used what she had learned at Pinnacle, which serves autistic children from 18 months old to 18 years old.
When one 6-year-old was having trouble staying on task to clean up his area after the party, Natalie sang a song about the importance of cleaning up after ourselves.
The inspired student promptly went to work.
“You learned some great tricks this summer, didn’t you?” Kirstina Ordetx, director of the eight-year-old Pinnacle Academy, said to Natalie.
“You can always put something into song to make it better,” Natalie replied.
This Integrated Peer Group concept, developed by Pinnacle’s Center for Autism Resources and Education as a research project several years ago, delighted the handful of parents who attended the pizza party.
“The idea is to integrate typical kids with kids with autism so they mimic the behavior of the typical kids,” said Carmen Penker, whose son, Luke, has formed a special peer relationship with 9-year-old Grace Reeves, who attends Imagine School and lives in Greyhawk Landing.
This is the second summer in a row that Grace has devoted to being a Pinnacle peer. She likes it.
“It’s very fun to help kids that have special needs,” Grace said. “Luke is one of the smartest kids I know. He’s awesome. But when he gets frustrated it’s hard for him to tell others what is wrong.”
Peers like Grace are trained how to noninvasively enter the world of the autistic child.
“I go over to Luke and say, ‘Is it OK if I sit down and play with you?” Grace said.
Asked what she gets out of the experience, Grace didn’t hesitate.
“Friendship,” she said. “He may not be able to express it, but he knows when I am sad and he will give me a hug.”
Peer educator Ally Kelly, 14, says the work is important. She has noted that sometimes well-meaning typical children, who don’t go through sensitivity training, are rude to autistic children without knowing it.
“They will say, ‘Can you please stop doing that?’ or ‘Why can’t you just say what you want?’ ” Ally said. “We teach autistic kids it’s all right to open up to someone their own age.”
Mac Ordetx, 10, the director’s son, has become so smooth at interaction with kids that he will often engage children outside of school who he thinks may need someone to talk to.
“If they can interact with me, the disability disappears,” Mac said.
This summer’s program ends today but youngsters who would like to be a peer buddy next summer can call the Center for Autism Resources and Education at (941) 758-4529.