It's lunchtime at Ahuimanu Elementary School. The kids around the tables are more than just friends, they are peers to their classmates with autism. Asa and Tyler are two of the sixth-graders who've made huge strides.
"Tyler talks way more than he did before, because before he never used to talk. And Asa plays more at recess with people," sixth-grade peer student Lauryn Kong said.
Autistic kids have a hard time communicating or forming relationships. At Ahuimanu, a program called Friends teaches student volunteers simple techniques to bring autistic students out of their shell.
"It takes a lot of work on their part. But once they come around and they start responding to their questions and playing with them outside, then there's a lot of reward," Autism Consultant Teacher Kali Carvalho said.
Ahuimanu also trains teachers to more effectively reach autistic students. Teachers go to the Kaneohe campus to learn, then take the lessons back to their own schools.
"We are the only ones that have this training platform where it's hands on. We're so used to stand and deliver and lecturing, and the teachers just don't learn that way," DOE Windward District Education Specialist Aletha Sutton said.
Peer training began at Ahuimanu four years ago. Students like it so much there's a waiting list of kids who want to help their autistic classmates. Youngsters as young as kindergarten have been trained as peers.
"We actually have a problem where our groups get too large, which is a good problem to have," Carvalho said.
Besides Ahuimanu, there are now training sites at King Intermediate and Castle High School.
"We're starting off in the Windward District with this progressive training platform that we're hoping to replicate first in our district, then hoping to do it state wide," Sutton said.
So far, about 200 autistic students have been helped. There are about 2,000 in Hawaii's public schools.