• 59°

Autism awareness: Local program is hyper-focused on early intervention

Evidence shows that early intervention for autism spectrum disorder can literally improve a child’s degree of functioning, enhancing development and making it more likely for the child to assimilate.

And that’s exactly what Andalusia City Schools administrators and teachers seek to do.

Autism spectrum disorder is a range of conditions known by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

A parent’s perspective: I know, Mama, I know

ACS District Administrator Sonja Hines previously worked as the system’s special education coordinator. Twenty years ago, she said, the system had seven students on the spectrum. This year, there are 30, and educators are working to develop individual education plans for four more students who are being evaluated.

“The earlier they are brought into a program that can help them, the better they are off,” Hines said.

School systems are charged with providing services for special needs children, including those on the autism scale, from age 3 to 21.

Children often are referred by medical providers for testing, she said. Both Hines and Special Education Coordinator Lindsey Cross are certified in administering ADOS – Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. The system also partners with Dr. Whitney Meade, a University of Alabama in Huntsville professor of philosophy from and an expert on special needs.

“We have Dr. Meade come and give assessments as well,” Hines said. “She’s got a realistic point of view. And you’ve got to be realistic. Parents are usually still in denial, and she’s really good with them.”

Hines called ACS’s approach somewhat eclectic.

“We don’t just have one method to serve these students,” she said. “Based on what the needs of the children are, we determine the types of services they need.”

Doctors often refer children to the school system, but sometimes childcare providers are the first to notice a need.

“The biggest warning signs of autism are language skills, behavior issues or socialization issues,” Hines said.

Cross said that it is very beneficial for students with autism to spend time with typical peers.

“The more they are in a routine and structured environment the better they function,” she said.

As the system has added more Pre-K classes, it’s been easier to put young children identified with autism with typical peers. When they adapt to the routine of school at ages 3 and 4, they enter kindergarten ready to learn. In the past, special needs children identified before kindergarten might receive services two days a week. But having a daily routine every day is more beneficial, Cross said.

The biggest challenge for many on the autism spectrum, Cross said, is an inability to communicate.

“This builds frustration in the student – and the parent – whether you are 3 or 21 or 55,” Hines said.

Cross said the first challenge is to teach the routine of the school day.

“You never want to give up on verbal skills because if the child is unable to communicate it can be even more frustrating for them.”

Cross said there are several different ways to help the children with learning.

“We utilize social stories a lot, which is a video or a picture of appropriate behaviors that help them understand what they should or shouldn’t do.”

In Pre-K classes, children on the autism spectrum learn from their typical peers.

“They start to model the behavior of other students,” Cross said.

It’s easy for autistic children to experience sensory overload, Cross said. The noise of the lunchroom or a crowded hallway may be too much for a student on the autism spectrum.

That’s where the sensory rooms come in to play.

“A sensory room is just a room with several things inside of it that can stimulate and calm down the children when they’re overwhelmed,” Hines said.

“There’s things like bubble tubes, which are eight foot tall tubs with bubbles and lights that change inside. There’s also a swing that wraps and compresses them to calm them down, and a crash pad which is basically a giant bean bag that conforms around their body to calm them down,” Cross said.

A ball pit – like the ones seen on playgrounds, and tiny trampolines also are available.

Thanks to a grant, the school system installed one sensory room at Bright Beginnings, where it has had a Pre-K class alongside the Bright Beginnings pre-school, and another at Andalusia Elementary.

Another way for autistic children to transition easily into high sensory environments, such as schools, is to cater to their needs.

“Bringing the children in early, before classes even start, could help prevent a breakdown and help transition smoothly into their school day,” Hines said. “We also try to be sensitive to how parents and other siblings feel. Whether you are the parent of a disabled or non-disabled child, you don’t want to be embarrassed.”

Both women know that the team approach is working.

Hines recalls a mom who was convinced her child could not conquer middle school.

“Now that child is in college, and functioning well,” she said.

driving around on their own and very functioning.”

A huge key is having parents being part of the team, Cross said.

“Parents need to offer the same services at home as the child receives at school,” she said.

Hines attributes the program’s success to the system’s team approach.

“We attribute our success to having all the right people at the table,” she said. “We try not to leave any stone unturned. We take pride in what we do. We are truly there to do what’s right for kids.”