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Abstract

The dramatic rise in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is accompanied by a substantial increase in public school inclusion. A growing body of research supports the need for teachers proficient in evidence-based practices to support such students. One strategy involves using peer support networks like Circle of Friends (CoF) for ASD adolescents. A collective case study was used to investigate experiences of stakeholders relative to a CoF community. Four themes emerged from a cross-case analysis: the influence a CoF partnership initiative has on inclusion, social skills improvement, empowerment, and sense of wellbeing. For the purposes of this article, findings relative to inclusion are discussed. CoF fostered an attitude of peer acceptance for classmates with ASD and helped alleviate feelings of fear peers experienced toward ASD classmates. CoF peers developed empathy and understanding for the CoF target student, and those qualities extended to students outside the circles. CoF seemed to have fostered true social inclusion, altering traditional divisions between special education and typical education populations. Peer acceptance generalized outside the school setting, even in the absence of CoF adult facilitators, and fostered long-term, genuine friendships. Findings from the larger study led to the development of an interactive website to foster a virtual learning community to enhance this ongoing partnership. The website might promote a deeper understanding of peer support networks for improved social skills, increased school involvement, decreased isolation, and decreased bullying in youth with ASD, as well as a successful community agency–public school partnership model.

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