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A World Seen with Autistic Eyes

Fairview Elementary students get a small taste of what it is like to be autistic.

Imagine trying to button a shirt wearing gardening gloves, or seeing the world through scratched goggles.

For children with autism, whose senses may be heightened or weaker than some of their classmates, those experiences are a way of life.

"We want to teach kids that it's OK to be different, not everyone's exactly alike," said Debbie Deegan, the special education PTA representative at Fairview Elementary, where children learned about autism and its complications during a two-day program called "Understanding Friends."

The program, first introduced last year, is designed around nine stations that provide children with different obstacles or challenges to simulate some attributes or complications children with autism may face every day. With a current diagnosis rate of one child out of every 150 born, autism is believed to be the most common pervasive developmental disorder, Deegan said.

Students in kindergarten through sixth grade as well as a class of autistic students, went through a variety of stations depending on grade level. In one station, the children wore scratched goggles and had to write their names and complete a maze. Another station had the children act out phrases such as "I'm hungry," "I'd like a piece of cheese" or "I have a headache" without speaking or making noises.

"These are just some of the challenges autistic children have to face every day," said physical education teacher Don Dillion, the father of two autistic sons.

The general education students "really loved" the program last year, Dillion said, and he was eager to see it again this year.

"The kids were totally absorbed in it," he said. "We have a very inclusive school and we think it's helpful to both the special needs kids and the typical students too."

The mainstream students are often eager to help their autistic classmates, Dillion said.

WHEN STUDENTS leave Fairview, they go on to Robinson Secondary School, which has a sizeable population of autistic students, he said.

"This makes our kids more aware. They see Johnny sitting there in class and they think he's acting weird, but because of programs like this, they'll understand he just needs some extra help," Dillion said.

Charles Taylor, another physical education teacher, said the inclusion of autistic children in some P.E. classes helps make all the students more comfortable.

"It's important to understand that everyone's different, but they're all alike and they're all special," Taylor said. "The more they're taught, the more they see it and are involved, the better they feel about individuals with special needs."

Autistic children are often inclined to copy the behavior of their general education classmates, Taylor said. The more comfortable those students are, the more comfortable the autistic students will feel as well.

Jerri Holland, a parent volunteer, said the program helps children learn to be accepting of people's differences, regardless of age.

"It goes with the theme of being a good citizen and compassionate to everyone," she said.

Fairview's new principal, Easter "Bunny" Lancaster, said she's happy to continue the program this year.

"There is an increase in the number of children who are autistic and to have the understanding [of what autism is] among the children is not only important, it's part of who we are and part of the culture," she said.

Lancaster said she "feels strongly we need to have students aware of how others view the world," and to be understanding and accepting of the disabilities or skills.

"This program is called 'Understanding Friends' and that's what we're all about here," she said.

By being presented with small obstacles or difficulties, the students are able to not only challenge themselves but learn about their own strengths and weaknesses, Lancaster said, whether autistic or not.

"Part of what we're doing is we want to really prepare our students for citizenship in the global community," she said. "There are different kinds of people who make up our community and we need to learn how we can work together for a common purpose."