“Everybody needs a friend,” says Patrick, a North Gwinnett HS senior and president of the Lunch Bunch. It’s that simple— and that complicated— for the student members of the North Gwinnett club designed to expand social opportunities for students with autism and their regular education peers.
For some students with autism, social situations, such as a bustling cafeteria, can be very challenging. Lunch Bunch offers a “safe space” for students with autism to interact with other young people in a comfortable environment, developing skills for small-group and individual conversations they’ll need in college and job settings.
Lunch Bunch Coordinator Josh Mendoza, a teacher at the school, says “neurotypical” teens who volunteer to be Lunch Bunch mentors have training at the beginning of the year and commit to eat lunch with the students with autism twice a week. While eating lunch, students practice their conversational skills. Then, a student facilitator poses a “Question of the Day.”
“The questions are designed to help the students to get to know each other, to spark conversation, and gives each student an opportunity to be the center of the spotlight,” says Mr. Mendoza.
“I like Lunch Bunch and the ‘Question of the Day’ because people listen to me,” says Josh, a senior. A North Gwinnett junior, Derren, agrees, saying he likes having conversations with the other students.
The opportunity for conversation and companionship are important for all participants, says Avery, a student mentor, also in 11th grade. “Lunch Bunch allows ALL students to meet in a friendly environment where their opinions are respected. Lunch Bunch has introduced me to several new friendships and I can’t imagine high school without it.”
Founded by the North Gwinnett teaching team of Tim King and the late Suzanne Booker in 2004, Lunch Bunch formally became a school club in 2012. Today, it’s student-run by a leadership committee of 12 students, both neurotypical students and students with autism.
Currently, 137 students are involved in the club, meeting during one of the three lunch periods. The group also gathers for activities at school and special events outside of the school day such as “minute-to-win-it” games, “Pancake-a-Palooza,” Poetry Cafe/Coffee Shop, and various holiday parties. After-school activities include an ice breaker at the beginning of the year, a homecoming dance group, volunteering for the school’s Trunk or Treat event, a fall festival, bowling, and laser tag outings. The final meeting of the Lunch Bunch is a “luau” with food, music, dancing, volleyball, yard games, and a celebration of the group’s graduating seniors.
“I think Lunch Bunch is a part of what makes our school special,” says Mr. Mendoza, who believes the club has shaped the culture of the school. He cites the peer mentors who become advocates for their friends with autism… in the halls, in their classrooms, at athletic events, and in the community, as well as the young people with autism who engage in and become part of their school community. “Lunch Bunch believes that we are all ‘Better Together’," he says.
Those connections are borne out by the student mentors. "I've been in Lunch Bunch for three years, and I would have never expected to develop such meaningful relationships with both regular and special ed students,” says Shea, a senior. “It just feels like home!" And it’s a place where friendships blossom. "I do Lunch Bunch because everybody needs a friend,” says Patrick. “It's a privilege for me to be a friend for some who have trouble making friends."