In the autism community, a peer partner is usually a neurotypical young person who partners with another young person who not only belongs to the same age or social group but who also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For local Delaware teens Missy Mizell and Frankie Nardo, becoming peer partners was an obvious step in their growing-up process. Mizell’s mother is longtime parent mentor and Autism Delaware™ resource coordinator Heidi Mizell, and Nardo’s mother is Autism Delaware volunteer and newsletter committee member Jen Nardo.
“I had volunteer hours to do for school, but I don’t remember ever not knowing about peer partners,” begins Nardo, a high school senior who wants to study marketing or psychology in college.
“I was 15 or 16 when I heard about TOPSoccer [a youth program that helps children with disabilities to learn and play soccer],” adds Nardo. “And I’m happy I did it. It brightened my day just as it seemed to do for the kids.”
“I have been heavily influenced by my mom,” says Mizell, a college freshman at New York University. Mizell majors in communicative sciences and disorders and wants to go into research or therapy specifically concerning ASD.
“Mom would never consider anything other than helping. Being a peer partner is not really an option—just a way of life because of my upbringing.
“When I was 7 or 8,” adds Mizell, “I understood I was a unified partner with Special Olympics through the Mary Campbell Center. To me, there’s no difference between being a unified partner and being a peer partner.
“When [my older brother] Shane aged out of Mary Campbell,” continues Mizell, “I was 15 and had been in the program since I was 3. All the children in the group, I considered my friends; you didn’t think about the disability. I didn’t think I would like staying in the program for siblings and friends after Shane aged out, so I just volunteered.”
“I was worried,” says Nardo of his initial concerns about peer partnering, “about doing something wrong and not being engaged enough or in control of the play while still having fun. What surprised me was how happy the kids were that I was just there, no matter what we were doing.
“Inclusion to me,” defines Nardo, “is giving those living with disabilities the opportunity to experience something new and make a friend.”
“At the Mary Campbell Center,” adds Mizell, “we make sure that, if an affected kid brings a friend or relative, [that friend or relative] knows how to get along. We say ‘The kids with disabilities are different, but do not treat them differently.’
“To me, inclusion is being friends first. Affected kids are your actual peers. That word is literal.”
Carla Koss is a two-time First State award winner for writing with 25 years’ experience as a writer-editor in the medical and disabilities fields and has served as managing editor for Autism Delaware’s quarterly newsletter since 2010.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the April–June 2015 issue of Autism Delaware’s quarterly newsletter, The Sun.