Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities

One District's Success with Inclusion and Recreation:
"Yes I Can" in Santa Clarita


Emily Iland is the California State Representative of the Yes I Can Program. Emily is co-author of the book, ASD From A to Z: Autism Spectrum Disorders, What to Know, What to Do 

One of the most devastating consequences of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the social isolation that can often result. Witnessing this first hand with my teenage son with Asperger Syndrome, I felt I had to do something to help. I helped bring the Yes I Can Social and Recreation Inclusion Program to our school district, and continue to support and expand it.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 250 people. The term Autism Spectrum Disorder is used to suggest individuality and variation among people with ASD. Yet, in all forms, the same core features are present: significant impairments in communication and socialization and restrictive or repetitive interests.

Some people with ASD may appear to understand more than they do. Yet there can be a significant gap in both language comprehension and social understanding. Many people with ASD do not “see” the social and emotional meaning behind facial expressions and body language. They may not know the meanings of many common words, and as a result, can miss out on important information. People with ASD also may not “see” the unwritten social rules that the rest of us live by.

The “restrictive and repetitive interests” of this disorder tend to isolate people with ASD and impair socialization. A person with ASD may become an expert in a particular subject or activity, spending a lot of time learning about a favorite topic or doing particular things over and over. In contrast, most people know a little bit about a lot of different things and have a fairly wide range of interests and activities to share with others. Unless the person with ASD can find a person who also likes their special interest or activity, they may find they do not have much in common with their peers. This limited range of interests and activities has an impact on conversation and interaction with others. As a result, persons with ASD may easily be left out of most social interactions.

As each year passes, people with ASD often find themselves having less in common with their classmates and less conversation and interaction with them. Consequently, persons with ASD may not acquire the skills to fit into the group, and social marginalization can result. People with ASD who do not have friends with whom to have fun are often painfully aware of this fact.

In the case of my son Tom, I was very aware that he was feeling isolated. He had learned social and communication skills, but a social gap still existed. I realized that Tom’s success would be closely linked to the attitudes of his high school peer group. This inspired me to search for a program that would help the peers get to know, understand, accept, and befriend Tom, and other kids like him. Tom needed same-age peers to help him learn “how to fit in” and belong, an important quality-of-life issue.

Through my research, I found the Yes I Can Social and Recreation Inclusion Program developed at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. It helps junior high and high school students with disabilities and non-disabled peers get to know one another, develop friendships, and enjoy common interests. The program can be offered as an elective class for credit, integrated into an existing class, or run as a campus or community club. Through the program’s 20 classroom lessons, students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers learn about relationship skills and a variety of disabilities and related issues. In addition, students with and without disabilities who are socially adept are trained to serve as “bridge-builders,” working with their classmates who may be socially isolated to remove barriers to social inclusion. Friendship and social skills are developed in an age-appropriate way, and “homework” outside of class includes pairs or small groups of students engaging in recreation activities in broader school and community settings, identifying and working to remove specific barriers to social inclusion.

I was convinced that Yes I Can would be an excellent program for my son and for our local schools. To get started, I contacted administrators and teachers in the William S. Hart Union High School District who understood the need for the Yes I Can program. The Hart District includes all the junior high and high schools in the Santa Clarita Valley of California, a community of 150,000 people northwest of Los Angeles. Leaders included Marty Lieberman, the Director of Special Education, and Leslie Crunelle, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, who felt that this program would benefit “all the kids.” We contacted the Institute on Community Integration and made a commitment to start the program. After training, Yes I Can began as a pilot program for academic credit at two schools. It has now expanded to several other school sites in a variety of formats. The district was awarded a Community Service Grant for $10,000 from the City of Santa Clarita to support the program, funding social and recreational activities to promote inclusion.

Happily, many of the anticipated benefits of Yes I Can are now being realized. All of the participating students have learned about disability issues and about themselves. They have formed friendships that last today, and that includes time together outside the classroom. The program is now integrated into two classrooms of students with ASD that meet once a week for a full class period combined with the lunch period. Yes I Can is considered an essential element of the social progress of these students. One class is run by a psychologist with two counseling interns from California State University, Northridge. The second class is run by a special educator and an educational assistant who changed school districts so that she could be part of the program at La Mesa Junior High School.

There are inspiring success stories from the program:

  • One withdrawn student with ASD met a wonderful friend through the Yes I Can program. Everyone who knows him can clearly see the dramatic improvement in his communication, behavior, and learning, and his positive attitude thanks to the friendship he formed with a bridge-builder student.
  • Prior to the program many of the students with ASD had little experience navigating the campus social scene. As they participated in Yes I Can, they were delighted to have their bridgebuilders include them in the “eighth grade only” lunch area, and to see familiar friends in their elective classes.
  • One young man who was serving as a bridgebuilder learned about ADA issues in the Yes I Can class. He was astonished to find out that his friend from the program who used a wheelchair had to go to the nurse’s office to get a drink of water. Thanks to this young man’s efforts, the entire Yes I Can class proudly attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony when two accessible water fountains were installed on the school campus.
  • My son, Tom, has also developed a lasting friendship with a young man he met through Yes I Can, and they continue to get together for movies and other activities a year after completing the class.

One challenge in getting the program going in our district was finding a way to “make it work” on different campuses. The Yes I Can model is flexible and can be an elective on its own or integrated into other electives. The class at Saugus High is taught five days a week for a full year by a resource specialist and supported by a speech and language pathologist who offers instruction in social communication that benefits all the students. At Canyon High School, Yes I Can is part of the Peer Counseling Class. It is run by an English teacher and the school psychologist. After meeting five days a week for an entire academic year, the students have formed strong friendships. They recently relied upon each other for support during the tragic loss of a classmate. There is a waiting list to be part of this group that has learned so much and meant so much to one another. At Rio Norte, a new junior high opening this fall, team leaders are exploring integrating Yes I Can into the Yearbook or Student Government electives. This would enable students with disabilities to provide community service and participate in some high-profile, fun activities on campus, while their non-disabled peers would learn about disability issues and inclusion.

One of the most pressing needs for the students in Yes I Can is to have a way to have fun and expand their social lives outside of school. One solution we came up with is enrolling Yes I Can program participants together in the city’s Parks and Recreation activities. Students paired up or went in groups to classes of mutual interest such as neon bowling, ceramics, extreme sports training, and ice skating. The City along with the Women’s Council of Realtors provided funds so that Yes I Can participants could attend the classes at no charge. The Parks and Recreation enhancement to Yes I Can is a highlight for the students because they have a specific social activity to look forward to every week. They enjoy having a friendly face to help them to feel comfortable. The City staff and the class instructors have been positive, welcoming, and accommodating to all the students.

Another community recreation activity in which Yes I Can participants have taken part was a special one-time event for students in the Saugus High School program – a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood. It was the first time that several of the students had ever gone to an amusement park and the first time that many had gone with their peers instead of their parents. It was an exciting and memorable day for everyone.

In only two years, Yes I Can have achieved many positive outcomes in Santa Clarita. Students with disabilities have had more opportunities for socialization and community recreation because their bridgebuilder partners have helped to facilitate their inclusion. Bridgebuilders have had fun while helping other teenage community members learn to include and befriend persons with disabilities. The teachers are proud of the progress that has been made, and parents are pleased to see the students enjoy their friendships and have fun together. Supporters of the program are happy to see the positive impact the Yes I Can program has in our community, and we anticipate more growth and success in the coming year.