Bearden senior develops program to help students with autism

Brooke Williams

Senior Jessica Froula returned from a recent trip to Duke University with a big idea. As a sibling of an autism sufferer, Froula was inspired to create a program enabling students to serve as mentors for those at Bearden with the disorder. “Part of the requirement for the leadership program at Duke was to come up with a leadership program that we would bring back to wherever we live and implement it there,” Froula said. “They said, ‘You should be passionate about what you’re doing.’” That made a program involving autism the easy choice for Froula, whose brother has the disorder. Merriam-Webster.com defines autism as “a developmental disorder,” symptoms of which include “impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships,” “impairment of the ability to communicate with others,” and “stereotyped behavior patterns.” In addition to working with students that are affected by autism, Froula plans to work with students who have high functioning Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is “a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by repetitive patterns of behavior and restricted interests, and by normal language and cognitive development,” according to Merriam-Webster.com. In addition, those with Asperger’s typically excel in one particular area of life. This program is designed on a mentor to mentee basis and will match up volunteers with a student with Asperger syndrome or autism, giving them the chance to build a new relationship. "I’m working with Jessica and a school psychologist that I work with who helps me with the Aspergers students to identify what students would benefit from it,” special education teacher Mrs. Vicki Lintz said. “We are now making the contacts with those students.” Before the mentors can be matched with a student, they must first go through a training process in February; the tutorial includes a PowerPoint from local physiologists showing what autism and Asperger syndrome are and how to react if something unexpected happens. “I hope that we are going to be able to keep it going past this year,” Froula said. “The most challenging part is being able to find mentors because we don’t want people who are going to be a bad influence or people who are not going to take it seriously.” As of right now, this program is only available at Bearden, but Froula plans to have meetings to continue the program for years to come at Bearden and other schools in and around Knox County. “Over the summer we are going to have meetings to try and continue the program – make it a yearlong thing and not just have it in Bearden, but have it in other schools as well,” she said. Froula is planning events in March for the mentors and mentees to spend the day together and get to know one another better. “A couple times a month, we will hang out or do something with them and basically just be there for the student,” sophomore volunteer Sam Arnold said. There will also be a fundraiser in April. A suggested idea for this has been a puzzle tournament to be held at Bearden. For more information on this program or how you can volunteer to mentor a student at Bearden with autism or Asperger syndrome, contact Jessica Froula at (865)-332-7577. Brooke Williams is a staff writer for The Bark. Follow The Bark on Twitter @BeardenBARK and like The Bark (Bearden High School) on Facebook.