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The buddy system

In a Pasco County school that pairs teen peers with autistic students, the most important lessons are those they learn about each other.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2005

photo
[Times photos: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
Vincent Benito, who is autistic, shows his frustration as he works with Kate Davis during math class at Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel. Kate and about 20 other eighth-graders at the Pasco County school serve as peers to 10 students with autism.



  photo
Kate reads a note inviting her to dinner with Vincent and his family. The note was written by Vincent’s mom with input from him.
Alex Prengaman, right, a sophomore at Wesley Chapel High, which is next to Weightman Middle, works on table manners with Vincent. Vincent visits Alex for lunch to help with the transition to high school.
Vincent leans back in his chair during his agriculture class. Only a few dozen schools in Florida have peer-support programs, most of them middle or high schools.

WESLEY CHAPEL - Everybody hears Vincent coming, Kate says, because how can you not?

He's tall, really tall, and when he's moving fast down the hallway, he shuffles his big shoes on the tile. And sometimes he makes this noise. This noise that goes Eeeeeeeeeee.

And some of the other kids, when they hear the shuffle and the noise, they do what people expect middle school kids to do: They make faces and repeat the noise and they say, "The retarded boy's coming!" And they laugh.

* * *

Last year, Kate laughed with them. She wanted to fit in. And who doesn't?

But that was forever ago. Now in second period at Weightman Middle School, Kate Davis sits next to Vincent at a table in the back of the room.

Vincent Benito is 15. Kate is 13.

A stranger peeking into the room wouldn't think anything out of the ordinary: A tall boy cutting paper into geometric shapes. A girl with an overstuffed backpack. A teacher trying to scare the rest of the class into snitching: "UNTIL I FIND OUT WHO DID IT, THE WHOLE SCHOOL WILL HAVE A HOLIDAY CELEBRATION BUT YOUUUUU WON'T!!!!"

But Kate and Vincent, they don't just happen. The world doesn't spin that way.

Kate only sees Vincent 48 minutes a day, but you can learn a lot about somebody in 48 minutes.

You can if you want to.

"Are you tired?" Kate asks Vincent when he puts his forehead on the table. "You can't sleep. We're in math class. Math is fun."

Vincent raises his head halfway. A compromise.

Later, Kate asks Vincent to read to her from a book about the Super Bowl, but he reads so fast, his words blur.

"I can't understand you," Kate says.

Her voice is firm but gentle.

The voice of a friend.

Vincent tries again. Slower this time.

If you spend a little time with Vincent, like Kate does, you know he likes the mall, the beach, the library, the Trop. He loves SheiKra, the new roller coaster at Busch Gardens. He's a fiend for Outback croutons. He just saw the new Harry Potter movie at Channelside.

He's a bookworm, too. A 5-foot-10 bookworm.

If mom lets him, Vincent will check out 30 books at a time. In Weightman's library, he has his own private stash of Dr. Seuss, hidden on a science shelf. When mom and dad whisk him away to New York or Puerto Rico or wherever for vacation, the first thing he does is find a phone book in the hotel room and curl up under the covers.

He flips to the schools page.

Mom doesn't know why. Vincent has autism, and a lot of times, there are questions and no answers.

A lot of times, Kate, too, can only guess why Vincent does what he does.

He can be mysterious. And confusing.

But the way Kate sees it, what kid can't be?

* * *

Vincent has become one of my best friends. I am going to be really sad when he has to leave for the high school this year. He has become a great listener and I know that he comprehends everything that I tell him even if he doesn't respond all the time or in the most brilliant ways. I talk to him just as I would with any of my other friends. Being so close to Vincent almost scares me because unlike my "normal' friends I can't keep in touch with him forever. I'm not always going to be there when someone says something mean or hurtful to him and be able to protect him . . .

- from Kate's journal

* * *

Vincent and Kate are part of a quiet revolution, a tiny but growing effort to pair students with severe physical or developmental disabilities with peers who are not disabled.

The idea: Children with disabilities will get academic and social support from other students while they, in turn, impart lessons about tolerance, differences and acceptance.

The hope: Real relationships take root.

Statewide, there are nearly 50,000 students with autism and other developmental disabilities. Yet only a few dozen schools have peer-support programs, most of them middle or high schools.

At Weightman, Kate and about 20 other nondisabled eighth-graders get class credit for serving as peers to 10 students with autism.

Most of the latter learn in classrooms separate from the rest of the students, but not Vincent and his younger brother, Joseph, who also has autism. At their parents' insistence, the Benito brothers attend class with nondisabled students.

Often, they have separate seating and different assignments. In art, they sit at a table with two student peers and two adult paraprofessionals while other students sit six to a table. In agriculture, Vincent colors on a worksheet that says "Life Cycle of the Butterfly" while a teacher writes science terms on an overhead.

Still on the edge. But still on the radar.

"We can't live in a shell," says the boys' mother, Nila Benito.

In elementary school, bonds between disabled and nondisabled students form more naturally, says Benito, who is known statewide as an inclusion advocate. Vincent and Joseph used to get lots of invitations to birthday parties. With mom's help, they made friends who remain friends today.

But the upper grades, they're different. Middle school is especially trying. As students become more cliquish, the social skills of developmentally disabled kids might not keep pace.

For them, invitations to parties or the mall or the movies come less often.

Socially, they begin to disappear.

* * *

Monday morning, Vincent isn't in a math mood.

Eyelids droop. Yawns erupt.

"Sit up," Kate tell him.

Vincent's hair is short and stylish, a single feathery lock curling down over his forehead. A red-and-black Bucs jersey - Brooks, No. 55 - brings out both the mole on his cheek and the zit on his nose.

Today's exercise: addition. Vincent counts out loud, writes his answers with a pencil. His strokes are big, loud, confident. Swoopy. The paraprofessional hands him a calculator.

Tap tap. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.

Vincent's fingers blaze over the keys. He yawns again. Scribbles.

"Good job," Kate tells him.

When math is done, Kate asks Vincent about his weekend. Mom gives the school a note every Monday morning listing his activities from the past few days.

"Good weekend?" Kate says.

"Good weekend," Vincent says.

"Did you go horseback riding?" she says.

"Yes," he says.

* * *

Some call her Kate. Some call her Katie. Pfff. She couldn't care less.

Today, she wears faded jeans and black Converses. In her head, there's a special place for movies like Fried Green Tomatoes and rock bands like the All-American Rejects. Her straight hair falls to her shoulders, parted in the middle. Renegade strands spill over soft blue eyes.

"A complete dork," Kate calls herself.

"Strong-willed," says her mom.

Before Kate met Vincent, she made fun of him because she was "trying to be someone I'm not," she says.

Now when other kids make fun of Vincent, she pounces.

"They said, "What? Are you his sidekick?' "

"I said, "Yeah, I am.' "

Kate was born near Los Angeles, a month after the Rodney King riots in 1992. There was so much hate in the air, her mom says, other mothers packed guns when they took their babies for a stroll. To get away, Kate's family moved to Northern California, where it was safe, but cold and rainy.

Later, in Florida, Kate clashed with a snobby band of cheerleader types. She endured her parents' separation.

Who knows? Maybe those things explain why Kate signed up for the peer program.

She didn't think of the tall kid in the hall or ask what "special needs" meant. She just thought, "Maybe I can help people."

More than 75 students applied.

Administrators selected Honor Roll students like Kate and "attitude girls" with discipline problems and all kinds of kids in between. They looked for empathy, responsibility, a little bit of toughness. They needed good matches for students with a wide range of disabilities and good ambassadors to the rest of the students.

Kate was thrilled - until she found out she'd be working with kids with autism. She thought, "Don't they just sit in rooms and scream at the walls?"

Vincent taught her the truth.

Kate walked with him on his school job, delivering newspapers to classrooms. She watched his fingers zip across a keyboard while he looked up movie trailers. She yelled with him at a pep rally.

She learned to read Vincent's signals: his smiles, his raised eyebrows, the way he repeats words when he's excited: "BuschGardens BuschGardens BuschGardens."

She figured out pretty quickly that he doesn't just echo what she says.

If he's not into the conversation, he zones out. If he is, he listens and nods.

The eeeee sound, it varies too, Kate says. The tone, the length, the facial expression that comes with it - it all depends on Vincent's mood. "It's every single emotion in one letter," she says.

Sometimes, Vincent makes eye contact with her.

Usually, it's when he's responding to a stern command. But sometimes, it's just out of the blue. A gift.

Kate doesn't know why Vincent does it. But it's nice.

* * *

Vincent truly is a smart kid. It makes me depressed to think that he is only going to become the stock boy at a Publix. I get scared at night when I think about all the things that could happen. I get completely terrified when I think about the "what if?' What if he ends up at a minimum wage job that underestimates him. What if he ends up not being able to ever get a job? What if his parents end up watching out for him forever? Well if that happened what happens when they pass away?

* * *

There's really no way to sugarcoat it:

Sometimes, Vincent's behavior isn't appropriate for school. Sometimes, it's difficult to make him stop.

Fourth period. Agriculture. Vincent tries to put his hand down the front of his pants - to adjust himself, his mother would say later. He knows he's not supposed to do it in public, but sometimes he tries anyways.

"Vincent, no," says his paraprofessional, Suzanne Madden. "Vincent, stop."

Vincent stops, then tries again . . . and again . . . and again.

The teacher never veers from her talk, but some students swivel in their seats.

Suzanne keeps trying: "Nice hands," she tells Vincent. "Nice hands."

"Makegoodchoices," he says. "Makegoodchoices makegoodchoices makegoodchoices."

Finally, Vincent stops.

Most of the time, Vincent stops. But on rare occasions, the paraprofessional has to take him out of the room. On even rarer occasions, school officials are called.

Early in the year, Vincent grabbed Kate's arm after an official intervened during a behavior problem. Kate and Vincent were sharing a table.

Kate says Vincent didn't want her to leave.

* * *

Nila Benito's sons have a friend named Alvin, a 15-year-old sophomore at King High in Tampa who they've known since preschool. Every other week or so, Alvin visits, and when he does, "They're happier," Benito says. "They act more typical."

She can tell by the way her sons high-five Alvin. She can see it when Vincent and Alvin sit next to each other in the car, and Vincent leans his shoulder into Alvin.

"That's him reaching out, saying, "Let's play! Come on!' " she says.

At Devil Rays games at Tropicana Field, Vincent could sit next to mom and dad and share his junk food with them. Or he could sit alone.

But he chooses to sit between Alvin and Joseph.

Benito can't help but worry about the way Vincent and Joseph are perceived.

But she also has faith that her sons are cool enough to be liked. That other kids are cool enough to like them.

Sometimes, her faith is rewarded: At Sam's Club the other night, a Weightman student Benito didn't know came up to her and the boys and said something completely, totally, shockingly unexpected.

The girl said, "Hi, Vincent."

* * *

I pray so hard at night to let something great happen to (Vincent), to let something AMAZING happen to him. I want him to do himself justice, even if he doesn't understand that I know he is capable and he CAN do something great. None of this is up to me, though. It is up to society and that's what keeps my stomach tied in knots . . .

* * *

Next year, Kate will be at Pasco High and Vincent will be at Wesley Chapel High.

"When he leaves, I'm going to cry," she says.

Maybe they'll stay friends.

On a recent Friday, Vincent's mom, with Vincent's input, asked Kate in writing if she wanted to go to Outback with them. Kate's uncle was in town, so she couldn't.

"But maybe another weekend," she writes back, "because I would LOVE to."

Before the bell, Kate, Vincent and Suzanne head out on Vincent's newspaper route, but they get a late start. Outside her next class, Kate decides she better cut the route short.

She stops. "Vincent, wait," she says. But Vincent keeps walking.

Another friend stops to talk, but Kate tells the girl to hold up. Her eyes stay on Vincent. She thinks, You can't leave a friend without saying goodbye.

Suzanne calls after Vincent, and far down the breezeway, he makes a U-turn. He stops in front of Kate and looks down.

"Vincent, can you say, "Goodbye, Katie?' " Suzanne says.

"Goodbye, Katie," he says, looking away.

Kate smiles at him. "Goodbye, Vincent."

- Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

ABOUT AUTISM

What is autism?

Autism is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). It is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. Experts estimate that three to six children out of every 1,000 will have autism. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females.

What causes autism?

Scientists aren't certain, but it's likely that both genetics and environment play a role. Researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the disorder. Studies of people with autism have found irregularities in several regions of the brain. Other studies suggest that people with autism have abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain. These abnormalities suggest that autism could result from the disruption of normal brain development early in fetal development caused by defects in genes that control brain growth and that regulate how neurons communicate with each other. The theory that parental practices are responsible for autism has now been disproved.

Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes.

[Last modified December 15, 2005, 11:30:07]


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