The George Washington Elementary School community gathered together on Wednesday, April 2, to show support for World Autism Awareness Day. Staff and students alike wore blue and met on the playground for a large group celebration with all classmates at the school, including typical kids and those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD.)
“Everyone gathered, cheered and took a group photo to show Washington’s support of autism awareness and their pride in having this special program for students with Autism,” said Chandra Collins, who, along with Debbie Gal and Katie Brown, are the teachers leading the Intensive Autism Special Day Classes at Washington.
These experienced teachers and their classroom aides, trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) techniques, make up the specialized Intensive Autism Program at Washington Elementary School, focusing on the needs of students diagnosed with ASD.
Collins visited all of the general education classrooms at the elementary school earlier in the school year, talking with the children about autism and how they can help the students in those classes. She answered questions and asked them to treat the ASD students like they would all of their friends.
“The general education students were encouraged to say hi, engage in conversations with and even play games on the playground with the students in this special program in order to act as good peer role models for social skills,” explained Collins.
All of the students in the Autism Program at Washington engage with other students in a variety of way and activities, including general classes like Physical Education, Music, Library and Art and school-wide events.
Typical student classes have recently begun reverse mainstreaming, coming into the classrooms in the Autism Program and interacting with ASD students to help them increase social and communication skills, such as eye contact, joint attention, sharing and taking turns.
“It is heartwarming to see the students in this Autism Program become friends with each other, as well as build meaningful friendships with their peers in other classes,” commented Collins. “Sometimes this just begins with a better understanding of the students’ behaviors and differences and molding that into an acceptance and appreciation of their uniqueness.”
Collins has two daughters attending Washington Elementary. One of her daughters, Heidi, a fourth-grader, has shown an affinity for her mother’s current and former students.
“Heidi has maintained a friendship with one of the students in this program, Quin, since Kindergarten,” said Collins. “They play together at school, meet at the park and even share jokes with each other.”
“This friendship epitomizes how the Autism Program at Washington is so special, and that increasing awareness can benefit all children,” Collins added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a new estimate that one in 68 children in America will be diagnosed with ASD. As rates of diagnoses rise, so does the need for early intervention and ongoing therapy and treatment in the medical establishment and in schools.
ASD is a complex range of neurodevelopmental disorders that are characterized by difficulties in social interactions, communication skills and behaviors, explained Collins.
Next year, the school plans to celebrate the entire month of April, with activities to continue to increase awareness and acceptance. April is nationally recognized as Autism Awareness Month.