BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Richardson Elementary School opened its doors and its heart Thursday night to showcase how the district works with students struggling with autism.
The district’s two autism teachers at the elementary level are Brook Patton and Jennifer LaFrenz, who along with other staff, donned blue autism t-shirts that read “Accept, Understand, Love” and organized the night’s event.
Patton said it was the first time the district has held a special event for the autistic children. They also brought in two specialists from the Great Prairie Area Education Agency to speak to parents and students about autism.
Teran Buettell, a school psychologist and member of the GPAEA’s Challenging Behavior and Autism team, did a skit with volunteers that showed how autistic students can use sensory signals to help with communication, whereas typical students and teachers use verbal cues to communicate.
The district’s two elementary schools currently service nine students with autism and all of the programming for the students takes place with LaFrenz and Patton at Richardson. The students are integrated with other classes, but get enhanced instruction from the two teachers.
Shelly Hoening, a kindergarten teacher at Richardson, has autistic students in her class and said she was glad the school was doing something to recognize the efforts and contributions the autistic students make to the school.
“I have three autistic children in my class and we just decided that it was time to do something. These two teachers had an idea and I just kind of pushed them a bit. We have some specialists coming and we’re actually going to do some group work so you can see what learning is like in the life of an autistic child,” she said.
Some of the projects include coloring puzzle pieces to help the students visualize the piece independently which would help with the puzzle as a whole.
The Autism Society pegs the number of children born with autism at 1 in 68 and the prevalence for school-aged children is 1 in 50. Autism services in the United States cost $236 billion annually with about $65 billion spent on school-aged children.
Patton said some of the students she works with have barriers to interaction with other students and staff.
“We’re here to try and break those down,” she said.
“It was kind of a negative thing we ran into that kind of got us fired up, really. We want everybody to be aware of how awesome our kids are. We ran into a situation where a student said something negative about our kids and it just broke our hearts. We just really wanted to make sure that everyone is aware of these kids. They’re just like you and I, but they are unique too.”
About 40 people packed into the Richardson library to hear about the struggles of the students and how learning can be a challenge for teachers and students alike.
“How do we learn things growing up, how to be polite, act in a crowd, and behave at school?” Buettell asked. “By watching other people…we model behavior. A lot of those things we don’t teach explicitly. But kids with autism see the world through a different lens. They don’t have that lense that allows them to see it that way, so they don’t pick things up the way we do. With some of our kids with austism, it’s obvious that something’s different. But with others, that’s not so obvious, and people can be judgmental because they don’t understand.”
“What I’m hoping you learn as you go through these centers is that our kids with autism have capabilties that we sometimes underestimate. But they also have limitations and we overestimate what they should be able to do. We need to have patience and suspend our judgment and we need to teach them. They still have feelings and they still want to fit in.”
LaFrenz said in the classroom, the autistic students can learn just like the other students, but some of the communication becomes difficult as the autistic students may not pick up on some things, but pick up on others, and that’s an awareness hurdle for teachers.
“We really wanted to bring to light how great these kids are and how much they have to offer, and we want them to be seen as an important part of the community,” LaFrenz said.