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Local WS/FCS Elementary Teachers Celebrate Autism Awareness Month



Local WS/FCS Elementary Teachers Celebrate Autism Awareness Month

By Michael A. Wiseman

What does it feel like to be a student with Autism? Different than every other student with Autism, according to Southwest Elementary teacher Courtney Fischer. And she would know – she works with the Pre-K EC students every day – a job she loves, but a job that makes the struggles kids with Autistm go through clear.

“If you’ve met one kid with Autism, you’ve met ONE KID with Autism,” Fischer emphasized.

Speech-Language Pathologist Claire Bonin, also at Southwest, echoed this sentiment: “There is no classic Autism… there is no typical Autism.”

It’s the kind of thing many people take for granted. You hear the label ‘autism’ and think it means one thing, or symbolizes one type of person, but in reality, Autism is classified as a “spectrum disorder” that the CDC says can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. Essentially, for every person that has Autism, it will manifest itself differently; that means those same struggles – be it communication, behavior, or social – also manifest differently.

That’s what Fischer most wanted to help fellow teachers, students, and parents better understand. So she teamed with Bonin and another Speech-Language Pathologist, Beth Dodson, to coordinate a month of activities to increase awareness and understanding of Autism.

Autism awareness training materials

They hoped that putting out a steady stream of information throughout the month would prove more effective than a single day of activities or the distribution of a pamphlet. Since April is already National Autism Awareness Month, it seemed a fitting time to both educate and celebrate these differences.

Fischer, Dodson, and Bonin created a series of handouts for other teachers that highlighted specific strategies to use with children who have Autism (noting that these same strategies can be used with any student), with weeks throughout the month focusing on communication, social interactions/emotions, sensory needs, and academics. They put together a bulletin board for students and staff. Teachers from across the encore classes incorporated Autism awareness into their lesson plans. “Mystery readers” shared stories over the intercom to end the day, and a special reading of ‘Someone Special Just Like You,’ a picture book that minimizes the differences between children with and without disabilities, had students in one particular class enraptured.

Perhaps coolest of all, they utilized an early release day to train staff using disability simulations and a sensory exhibit. This was an immersive experience that included noise-canceling headphones, weighted vests and lap blankets, visual schedules, apps on tablets, and numerous other tools used for students with Autism. There was even a “sensory overload simulation” which helped teachers feel what Autistic students do when they reach that stimuli breaking point.

teacher sensory overload
teachers experience sensory overload

The teachers also wanted students to be more knowledgeable as well. Not only does Southwest have a growing EC population, it’s one of the few with such a young population (with students as young as three years old). The idea worked – Fischer talked of how students on the playground were more receptive of their fellow students’ differences after learning more about them.

Dodson said the same thing. “Kids are very accepting if you answer their questions… Knowledge takes away fear.”

The teachers also talked about how supportive their administration had been, and the receptiveness of fellow teachers. As if on cue, veteran teacher Debbie Dosek stopped by to remark on how much it meant to her. She said that teachers better get interested because Autism is going to “cross everybody’s door before their lives are complete.”

That change – that willingness get more knowledgeable, and, eventually, look at the situation through a different lense – is what Fischer, Dodson, and Bonin are striving for. Their efforts are to help prevent unwarranted conclusions at the grocery store when another parent’s kid has a fit, or on the bus when one student sits shy and distant from his or her peers. They want to raise understanding and, by proxy, support the kids.

Most moving was a personal victory Fischer shared. She had one kid at the start of school who basically had one long outburst every day. It was a struggle. But now, that kid only has a few small fits a day – he even snatched a hug before I left. It’s the kind of success that makes Fisher tear up.

And efforts like these, started by teachers at a local elementary school but championed by more, help create real cultural change. It’s the right kind of good, and it’s happening every day in our schools.


To learn more about Autism Awareness Month and see how you can get involved, check out the local iCanHouse. Additionally, visit Autism Speaks and Autism Society for more information.

The Forsyth County Chapter of the Autism Society also has additional contact information.

kids learn about Autism
kids learn about Autism

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