Children with Autism from Renad Academy and students from Qatar Academy Sidra are both learning key life skills through a mentorship program based on mutual understanding, learning – and fun.
A partnership between two Qatar Foundation schools that has friendship at its core is providing opportunities for children with Autism to build their skills and confidence – and making leaders of the young people who mentor them.
Nadi Al Asdeqa is a friendship club that was formed two years ago, when Qatar Academy Sidra (QAS) and Renad Academy – both of which are part of Qatar Foundation’s (QF) Pre-University Education – combined to create a mentorship program that would bring benefit to the lives of students at both schools.
It connects young learners at Renad Academy – which helps children with Autism – and Grade 4-5 students at QAS. During a program which runs across a whole school year, QAS students help their new friends from Renad Academy to enhance a range of life and social skills.
And as Holli Gelina, Equity and Diversity Design Guardian, QAS, explains, the club is growing. “Last year, 16 students from QAS signed up to be student mentors, while this year 55 students wanted to join, so it’s great that more students are willing to participate,” she said. “This is the reason behind our aim to expand the program, by building more friendship clubs within QF schools.
“The students from Qatar Academy Sidra have learned a lot from this experience, which has increased their social engagement skills, such as resilience, patience, and self-confidence, as well as developing their communication skills - listening, dialogue, and questioning. It also teaches them about the importance of diversity, and about leadership.”
Students from QAS who are interested in becoming part of the friendship club undergo an interview process, where they are asked about what motivated them to want to join the program, and what they know - or want to know - about Autism. Based on this, QAS chooses the students who show the most promise as mentors.
We’ve seen how students who participate in the friendship club become leaders within their school, are more capable of solving problems, and have more patience, confidence, and maturity.
“We work with the mentors, teaching and supporting them on how to interact with students with Autism - how to help a child who has difficulties expressing themselves, for example, or encouraging them to take turns, follow multi-step directions and enjoy playing with others” said Gelina.
“They practice these skills before they meet the Renad Academy students, and we make sure they are serious about joining the club, because being a mentor to a student with Autism is not easy.”
A range of activities are part of the program, from shopping for ingredients for meals, to bowling at Multaqa (Education CIty Student Center), making ice cream together, and going to gyms and restaurants together.
“These activities may seem simple but, for students with Autism, it is something they need to learn about and practice doing - doing them with other students who are the same age as they develop their ability to share and to interact as part of a group,” said Gelina.
“We accompany the students during these activities, but we stay in the background, let our students be their own leaders, and to let Renad students interact, socialize, and enjoy being part of the community. The program also shows Renad students that being diagnosed with Autism doesn’t mean there are any limits on being an active and valued member of society.”
The friendship club started within QF because QF believes in inclusivity and diversity, and on creating a real relationship between its schools.
Speaking about the impact of the initiative on QAS students, Gelina said: “Our students they have learned more about themselves and have become more confident in their skills and their ability to help others. Also, they feel they have learned a lot about Autism and children with Autism - they understand more about how people can be different from each other, but that is what makes the world a more diverse place and
they can have fun and happy experiences together, no matter what their differences may be.
“We’ve also seen how students who participate in the friendship club become leaders within their school, are more capable of solving problems, and have more patience, confidence, and maturity.”
Both QAS and Renad Academy aim for this partnership to make an impact on the wider community in Qatar, through increasing public awareness about Autism, and decrease the stigma that can still surround it.
“The friendship club started within QF because QF believes in inclusivity and diversity, and on creating a real relationship between its schools,” said Gelina. “We hope that the successful experience of this club will encourage other schools in Qatar to get involved.
“In life, we are always going to be working with people who are different than us, and we have to learn how to understand and appreciate them. For the students involved in the friendship club, this is a way to start.”