Learning To Function With Autism

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Michael Reardon loves Sponge Bob, playing with his cars and all kinds of music.

Like other students, the 6-year-old smiles at recess when his little hands grasp the monkey bar and he swings his body back and forth.

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Michael Reardon reads to aid Marcela Amaya and teacher Barbara Sturlin in his classroom at Julia Randall Elementary School.

Unlike most of the students at Julia Randall Elementary School, Reardon is mildly autistic.

"Do three penguins and then you can swing on the monkey bars," Reardon's teacher, Barbara Sturlin tells him.

Each penguin represents a workbook page or a book Reardon must read before he can play.

The penguins are magnets that Sturlin or one of the classroom aides will place on his ‘Now, Then' board.

Most autistic children learn with visual clues.

"I like the way you are working," Sturlin praises Reardon, as he takes a crayon and circles the red boxes on his worksheet.

The noise of students passing in the hall outside distracts him briefly and an aide shuts the door and the noise out.

He learns to say "football," as he identifies kinds of balls on another page.

On a page of animals and cars, he must identify a green car.

"V'room," he makes the noise of a racing car, as he chooses it.

Routine and negotiation are critical components in the world of an autistic child.

Sturlin often gives the students timers so they can tell when one activity should end and the next begin.

For instance, if a student wants to go to lunch, but it is not time yet, one of the aides could set a timer then give it to the student.

Students trust the timer because they know they will get to do the promised activity when it goes off, Sturlin said.

Autism is a complex mental disability that results from a neurological disorder in the brain.

Typically, it affects a child's ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally. Autism affects a child's ability to socially interact and play.

Autistic, Asperger's, Childhood Disintegrative, Rett's and Not-otherwise-specified Pervasive Developmental (PDD) are the five basic disorders, according to the Autism Society of America. In each disorder, symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Early intervention and treatment based on each child's strength, weaknesses and needs, can reduce the challenges of autism.

Reardon was diagnosed at 3 years old.

"He is doing a lot better since we came to Arizona (in May). He is talking in full sentences, he recognizes color," Carolyn Kenny, Reardon's mother said.

Reardon went trick or treating as dark Spiderman and wanted to play in his costume several days before.

"He had a very good time," Kenny said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended routine screening for autism spectrum disorders as part of 18- and 24-month well-baby exams in an Oct. 29 press release.

"This is a huge step forward," Sturlin said.

Center for Disease Control statistics show one baby in 150 births will have some form of autism. The numbers are on the rise.

When autistic students are ready to matriculate to the regular classroom, they go with an aide beside them.

One of the ways autistic children learn proper social behavior and how to communicate, is by interaction with their peers.

Julie Eckhardt's son, Younger, attended Julia Randall school for seven years.

In addition to learning reading, writing and arithmetic, Younger discovered a passion for art.

He draws and colors cartoons, abstract and realistic people and things.

He went through a castle phase. He drew every stone in the castles and through the windows, there was yellow candlelight, his mother said.

Younger won second place for one of his drawings at the "Shining a Light" art show Myra's Gallery sponsored for adults and children with disabilities in 2006.

With perseverance, repetition and commitment, Younger was able to overcome some of the language barriers autism created and move on to middle school.

Transition, for children who need routine, is not easy.

"Most teachers are not prepared to work with autistic children, because colleges aren't prepared to teach them what has to be done," Eckhardt said.

Only five universities in the U.S. offer autism special education as a specialty degree.

Eckhardt supplements her son's education with a language curriculum and an after-school caregiver.

"My hope is that Younger will be able to function in society as independently as he can," Eckhardt said.

"I and my aides are very fortunate to have an extremely supportive staff and understanding staff at JRE. This is why my kids have seen such success," Sturlin said.

That team effort means a child knows for example, it is OK to go to a cafeteria worker and say, ‘It's too loud in here,' or have a silent signal with a teacher that means, ‘I am on overload and I need a break.'

Sturlin's room is a safety zone.

"It is important for people to understand and be compassionate towards autistic people. These kids constantly struggle to overcome and it's hard for them," Eckhardt said.

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