Learning to Understand Autism

Learning to Understand Autism

Washington Mill students and teachers participate in activities that demonstrate autism’s limitations

It’s said that walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes will help one understand how they feel. If that’s the case, then last week’s autism awareness program was right on target.

Held at Washington Mill Elementary School, the program was spearheaded by Beth Jarvis, mother of Jack Jarvis. Nine years old and a third grader at Washington Mill, Jack was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome — a higher functioning form of autism. He is in one of three autism classes which make up the autism center at Washington Mill.

The program was called "Understanding Friends" and demonstrated via hands-on, interactive stations what it feels like to have impairments with fine motor, visual and perceptual and sensory (tactile) activities. All of the events were organized by parents of children with autism who attend Washington Mill Elementary School. Target, Walmart, and Home Depot helped sponsor the events.

“One of the highlights is the support we get from the parents,” said Tim Kasik, assistant principal. “The parents set this all up. The GE kids question what it’s like to be autistic, and this helps them to understand.”

THE GOAL of the awareness program was to help the general education students understand why students in the autism centers sometimes act the way they do. Each of the exercises was aimed at helping students understand the limitations of an autistic child. They tried to write while listening to static. They beaded strings while wearing gloves. They wrote their names while wearing glasses that distorted vision. They jumped yarn instead of rope. They tried to walk while viewing the world through a set of binoculars.

From all accounts, the exercises accomplished their goal.

“It was a tremendous success, and we’ve had requests from other schools for the handouts that we used,” said Tish Howard, principal of Washington Mill. “It raises everybody’s comfort level — not only the kids, but the staff as well. They realize that they don’t have to be afraid of [autism] and that it is manageable.”

“It really gave the GE [general education] kids a look at how our children are different,” said Alyson DiSanto, autism teacher. “I had students coming up to me, saying, ‘Now I know why that boy flaps his hands or why that kid always has the sillies.’”

Jarvis said, “I feel like the program was a success. I felt like the kids were very receptive to what we were trying to convey. While interacting with the kids as they went through the stations there were a couple of kids having light bulb moments such as ‘Wow, this must be so hard for [name of autistic child]. I never knew it was so hard for him’ while this little boy was trying to string beads with garden gloves on.

“Another kid also remarked ‘I always wondered why this boy I know always wears the same sweatshirt every day. I guess he doesn't like how other clothes feel.’ Those comments were encouraging to me although some of the comments really underscored the importance of what we were trying to do.”

In addition to the exercises that were held last week, information on autism will appear throughout the month on the lobby bulletin board that greets visitors. Faculty and staff have been wearing autism awareness ribbons. Additionally, all families at the school received a fact sheet detailing autism and describing how to interact with those affected by it. Attached to that fact sheet will be a temporary tattoo of the autism awareness ribbon that all WMES students were encouraged to apply and wear to school on Friday, April 1.

REACTIONS TO THE EXERCISE varied depending on the age of the student. While the kindergartners and some of the first graders didn’t seem to grasp the significance, the older students ] did. During the bead threading exercise, some of the first graders wanted to know why they couldn’t take the gloves off to make it easier. James Colman and Sam Hutchinson, however, seemed to get it. Hutchinson said that this shows what it’s like to be autistic, and Colman said that you would slip on the monkey bars if you were wearing gloves.

Second graders Jasmine Lee and Alison Howell worked on the bead threading exercise, and said, “When the string falls, it’s harder to pick it up [wearing gloves].”

Another second grader, Monica Raymon, said, “This makes it easier to learn about what it’s like to be autistic. We can’t tease them if we know it’s hard for them.”

“When they read, they see the world differently,” said second grader Fazila Tariq.

“I learned that autistic children have more difficult times than we do,” said Catherine Ray, after trying the binocular walking exercise. “When a student comes into our class, I will try to help them.”

It’s all a learning process, and Jarvis said that while she was at one station, one boy leaned to his friend and said very matter-of-fact and not in a derogatory way that "autistic people are stupid because they don't have brains."

“Thankfully I was standing behind him and was able to dispel that myth, but hearing comments like that made me really recognize the importance of educating and enlightening our children and people in our community.

“Overall, I felt like the kids took it seriously. They had fun with the activities yet they also reflected on what each activity was attempting to represent. And my hope is that in the future when typically developing children encounter a child with autism — or any child with differences for that matter, that they will show a little more empathy and they will be more apt to reach out because they understand him/her a little bit better.”

JARVIS SAID THAT HOWARD and all the staff have been very supportive of the autism center. Shelly Brooks agrees. She pulled her son, Matthew, out of another county school after he wasn’t getting the attention that he needed.

“Things got out of hand and they couldn’t help him,” Brooks said. “Washington Mill has small classrooms which make it easier for him to transition. He doesn’t do well in groups of more than 10.”

LeAnna Miller, whose eight-year-old son Bradley Sumpter is at Washington Mill, likes the school, but thinks that Hawaii — where they were previously based — did a much better job of integrating the county services. Most children receive auxiliary therapy at home, and in Fairfax there is not much overlap, whereas in Hawaii it was well coordinated.

While all the autistic children are in one of three autistic classes, most of them are mainstreamed into at least one of the regular classes during the day. Jarvis said that her son starts his day at the center and then is mainstreamed into some of the classes. He is also pulled out for GT Math; something that Jarvis said has made a huge difference. Like other children with Asperger’s who exhibit exceptional skill or talent in a specific area, Jack does very well in math.

Miller said that her son is mainstreamed as well. She isn’t sure what will happen when he gets to middle school, but others said that they had heard the programs at Carl Sandburg Middle School were very good.

“There is an ever increasing amount of mainstreaming and inclusion. This can be disconcerting for a teacher who has no experience,” said Howard, who is concerned about the lack of special education training for teachers going for a regular teaching degree. “Mainstreaming is here to stay.”

THE TEACHERS in the autism center have all received special training. Students are divided according to age and grade, function and ability. While Washington Mill currently serves as the only autism center for this pyramid, Howard is not sure what will happen as the numbers increase. She inherited the program when she joined Washington Mill three years ago; this is its fifth year.

“The autistic program is growing,” Howard said. “It has really been a learning experience for all of us.”

Howard isn’t sure whether or not it’s the increased diagnosis that is yielding the higher numbers, or if the condition is caused by contaminants. All she knows is that, “something is contributing to it.”

DiSanto, who teaches the younger students, has seven high- to moderate-functioning students. “It’s a huge struggle to get them to sit down and focus,” she said. Yet, like the others, she finds it very rewarding.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” DiSanto said.

Dr. Daisy Goodwin also enjoys working with autistic children. She has five of the lower functioning students and said that they all have made some progress this year. Goodwin has been teaching autistic children for the past four years and plans to retire at the end of the school year.

“It’s a challenge keeping them focused and getting them to follow a schedule,” Goodwin said.

Kathleen David has the older students, third to sixth, and said, “I find it very enjoyable. The biggest challenge is the range of abilities. I have students who are on grade level, while others are non-verbal. I love it here — it’s a friendly school and the parents are happy here.”

While teaching autistic children has its rewards, it can be stressful, and Howard credits the increased county ratios in significantly reducing the number of sick days and amount of burnout.

“The county has done an amazing job in raising the ratios,” Howard said.

For example, in DiSanto’s classroom, there are three permanent instructional assistants and one traveling one.

That wasn’t always the case; when Howard started the ratio was 3 to 1 and the program wasn’t supported nearly as well as it is now. She is thankful that has changed, and said, “Fairfax County has been extremely responsive to every request that I send out.”