Join in recognizing Autism Awareness Month

By Sheri Willrodt 

Director of Special Services,  Austin Public Schools

Autism Spectrum Disorders (or ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that an average of one in 68 children in the U.S is on the autism spectrum.

One method of intervention that has been highlighted in recent research deals with peer mentoring. For most kids, the playground is a great place to have fun and one of the best ways to learn how to interact with other kids.

However, for children with autism, playgrounds can cause stress. Autism can hinder a child’s ability to socialize. A simple invitation from another child could make all the difference.

A recent study highlights the importance of bringing typically developing peers together with children on the autism spectrum in all social settings. The study on peer-training, published in 2012, argued for a shift away from relying solely on instructor social-skills training and toward greater emphasis on teaching classmates how to interact with children who have social challenges.

In Austin Public Schools, this has been accomplished at the elementary level through “Lunch Bunch” socialization groups, and at the middle level through the Peer Power Partners (PPP) initiative.

PPP pairs typically developing peers with students with autism and other disabilities in social situations. Plans are underway to roll this initiative to the high school level next. Approximately 2 percent of the student population in Austin Public Schools has been identified on the autism spectrum and in need of special education services.

This is 13 percent of our total population of students receiving special education services. It should be noted that not all students who have a medical diagnosis of autism are in need of special education services, so the actual number of students on the autism spectrum is actually likely higher than this.

In order to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about autism, the Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s. The United States recognizes April as a special opportunity for everyone to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.

In Austin, Community Education is sponsoring a special event in April at the Hormel Historic Home. The Autism Awareness Night will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

This will be a large group session focusing on ASD basic facts (Autism 101), followed by breakout sessions. Choices in breakout sessions include The Power of Visual Supports, Setting Kids up for Success, and Sensory Sensitivities and Interventions. Cost for the event is $16. There will be CEUs available, and registration is through Community Education, 460-1706, http://www.austin.k12.mn.us/clc/.

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