OKEMOS, Mich. — Everyone's high school experience is different. Maddie Smith and Jacob Neuman, two students at Okemos High School, know this better than most.
That's thanks to a program called LINKS, that pairs general education students with special education students both in and out of the classroom.
Smith and Neuman say this not only helps them understand each other's experiences, but led to a friendship.
Neuman and Smith were paired together when classes were online, and would spend two virtual class periods a week together.
Special education teacher Jessica Phillips said these sorts of bonds help her students in both classroom and social settings.
“They get to kind of learn in the classroom, in a safe place with a link who their sole job is to help them learn how to have socially appropriate behavior. So that when they do go out in the hallway, maybe they can start up a conversation with somebody they've never met or something," Phillips said.
Links help their partners stay on task in the classroom and Phillips said they also model appropriate behavior.
"There's things that link can get students to do that I can't get a student to do," Phillips said.
But it isn't just Phillips's students who are learning.
“On the flip side of that, like it teaches our links about this whole other population of people. It teaches them empathy and compassion," Phillips said.
The general education students also have one class a week where they learn more about autism to better understand their links. They learn about topics such as theory of mind central coherence, sensory processing and how to detect autism.
And the two linked students spend time together outside the classroom as well, with outings once a month to restaurants, movie theaters, bowling, malls and museums.
Smith has been a part of the program at Okemos High School for two and a half years. Neuman has been in the program for three years.
They both said they've taken away valuable lessons.
“For me it’s a lot of things," Smith said. "It’s helped me decide I want to major in special education next fall. It’s also taught me that we have something to learn from everybody and everyone’s version of autism is different.”
Neuman said his favorite part of the program has been making new friends and going on outings.
"What I’ve gotten out of this program is I can meet new people," Neuman said.
Phillips said she's received positive feedback from parents as well.
"They build friendships," Phillips said. "And it's really good for the parents to see their students who typically would not have a normal social life having some semblance of a social life, if that makes sense. Like these, like a lot of our students are students that are not going to go out with friends but suddenly they have this link who is inviting them to go out to a movie or going out to grab some food or something."
The program exists in several Okemos schools in some capacity. It has been at Okemos High School since 2014.
Phillips said she's seen it grow more and more every year she's taught, to the point where now every special education student at Okemos High School has at least one link. Neuman has three.
In the first few years of the program, Phillips said they would advertise through posters and have school counselors recommend students to join. But now she said they do "zero" advertising because the benefits of the program spread so quickly by word of mouth. They've even had to turn away some general education students in recent years who apply because there aren't enough special education students to pair with them.
Phillips said she believes the popularity is due to the friendships and understanding that students form.
"They definitely learn how to be better human beings, I think, by just being accepting of students who are different," Phillips said.
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