District autism team available to staff and parents

By Nancy Gutierrez

Students in public education come from all walks of life. Each have their own special needs, some greater than others.

But all students must reach the same standards of academic proficiency according to federal guidelines. This includes students with moderate learning disabilities. Close to two years ago Director of Pupil Services Suzanne Terrell realized the need for support services for those special education students with characteristics that fall within the autism spectrum.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder which is characterized by impairments in communication and social interaction and restricted, repetitive and stereotypical patterns of behavior, interests, and activities according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder meaning the symptoms can be present in a variety of combinations and can range from mild to severe.

Two years ago Terrell created a district autism team made up of one program specialist from the county Office of Education, the Lindsay Unified School District counselor, Michelle Zavaleta and Terrell. The team spent time at workshops and inservices learning more about autism and how to meet the needs of those students. At that time the district had two autistic students.

"It became a focus. We knew that was an area we were not well versed in enough to meet student needs," Terrell said.

At a November board meeting Terrell told the board that the district now has four autistic students of various ages. Terrell realized that the district autism team should be expanded upon to involve parents, teachers or any other staff members in the district.

Terrell said research shows that there has been a prevalence of autism throughout the country. Unfortunately there is a lot that is still unknown about the disorder because it is a complex neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.

Terrell said people with autism lack social cognition.

"The awareness of what we need to do to navigate throughout the day is lacking in students who fall in the autism spectrum," she said.

The team will participate in monthly inservices, discussing and learning about strategies involved in teaching students with autism and about the disorder. The team's main goal will be to provide support and information for students, teachers and parents. Terrell said in order to do that there must first be a general understanding of the disorder which, in itself is a difficult thing to do. Though special education teachers learn generalities concerning autism, Terrell said there is no specific training on how to teach students with this disorder.

"But I think soon to come, resource specialists will be required to have training in autism strategies because the need is huge," she said.

Currently the four students participate in general education classrooms but are supported daily by resource personnel who work with the teacher and the student. Terrell said a big part of their education relies on visual cues.

"The students need visual schedules. Then, as they get older, they transfer from pictures to words," she said. "The more visual we can make the world the better they will operate in the world."

Visual supports are materials that can be seen by the students that will enhance the communication process, from body movements to environmental cues. These visual supports capitalize on a persons ability to gain information from the sense of sight.

Terrell said early intervention with Autistic children helps them to understand the world around them better and at a faster rate. Though there is no cure for autism, providing these students access to occupational therapy, speech and language pathologists and resource specialists can aid in increasing their cognitive awareness and speaking abilities.

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