Harrison Avenue School music teacher Cris Spinner was inspired to create a companionship program for students with disabilities after watching the television show Barney & Friends.
Her autistic son, Anthony, was a few years old and had trouble speaking and playing with other children his age.
“It dawned on me that Barney had big kids pretending to be little kids, and the little kids would watch and learn,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Hmm. What if I got a bunch of kids to come into my house that were in fifth grade who would play with Anthony?”
Spinner set up regular play dates with the children, who were taught how to talk and interact with Anthony. Children in the fifth grade, she said, worked well because they could understand instructions, but “still had that little kid spirit.”
“The difference in his social and play skills was astounding,” Spinner said.
Anthony is now a sophomore at Harrison High School and plays the clarinet in the marching band.
Last year Spinner launched a test “buddy program” in Harrison Avenue School to welcome the school’s first class of children with disabilities, including autism. Disabled children were previously educated outside the district.
Spinner paired each of the six children, in grades kindergarten to second grade, with their own fifth-grader. The fifth-graders were trained to connect with the children by demonstrating how to use toys and mimicking their activities.
“It was an unbelievable success,” she said. The children with disabilities began to wave hello, could sit for longer stretches, and improved their eye contact, Spinner said.
“The culture of the school changed as well,” she said. “Everybody started seeing these children as part of the community.”
The volunteer buddies have especially grown from the experience, Spinner said.
“They really learn themselves that all people are equal and that everybody has something to offer,” she said. “I know their compassion and overall understanding was really deepened.”
Principal Valerie Hymes said Spinner’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and ability to unite teachers has made the program successful. “Her spirit is really courageous,” she said. “Part of it is being so passionate about serving all kids in the district.”
As the district adds more classes for children with disabilities, Spinner hopes to expand the buddy program to all the schools.
Spinner also organizes an annual music concert at the school to raise money for Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy group.
(Cris Spinner, a Harrison middle school music teacher, is the organizer the school’s “buddy program” that pairs 5th graders with the schools half dozen children with disabilities. ( Theresa Juva / The Journal News )