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Rosa Parks Elementary School third-graders ahead of the curve on autism awareness


By Tammy L. Lane
Special to KyForward

Nine-year-old Steven Estepp would earn gold stars under “plays well with others” on a throwback report card because he and his classmates at Rosa Parks Elementary realize everyone is unique and some need more TLC than others. Their thoughtfulness was evident when school psychologist Melisa Morris led a short session during Autism Awareness Month.

“It’s kind of like a disease and you’re born with it, and it makes you think differently than others,” Steven offered when Morris asked what the third-graders already knew about autism. Their teacher, Tara Vincent, had provided an overview and Morris followed up with a “Sesame Street” video clip and a few highlights, particularly about the signs and symptoms.

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences (Photo Provided)

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences (Photo Provided)

“My class is aware of any student who struggles socially and accommodates them. They’ll pick (that child) at recess even if they’re not the best player,” Vincent said, giving an example. “They’re very kind and aware. They take care of each other, and they take care of students with differences.”

That was one of Morris’ main points – how, yes, people with autism are a bit different, but then so are all their classmates. One of the activities she suggested at Rosa Parks encouraged students to color their own puzzle pieces and then assemble them into a picture.

The exercise illustrated how people can be unique yet all fit together well.

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. People on the autism spectrum have problems in three areas: social interaction, communicating with others, and behavioral challenges (often repetitive behaviors). Autism is referred to as an autism spectrum disorder because people have varying degrees of disability. For instance, some children develop verbal skills later than normal; others, when older, struggle to interact with peers. Sometimes a student will be particularly bothered by bright lights, crowds, loud noises, or types of fabric.

Others might use their bodies to show emotions, such as rocking when upset or clapping when excited. According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children has autism.

In the past, staff like Morris in Fayette County Public Schools shared resources with teachers and tidbits via emails to colleagues during Autism Awareness Month.

“This year our district has taken the initiative to make it more purposeful,” she said.

For instance, Morris distributed lessons and activity guides for teachers at Rosa Parks and Picadome Elementary (most psychologists serve two schools). She also gave out autism-awareness lapel pins to the office staff and themed pencils to students.

“So frequently, all that kids know is (students with autism) are different and they don’t understand them. They’re less likely to be friends with them and more likely to laugh at them,” Morris said. “(Autism Awareness Month) is to create some understanding and tolerance. If you understand how some people are different, that helps you be a better friend.”

Steven and his fellow third-graders get it. “If you don’t know they have autism, you might think they’re weird. But if you do, you can offer extra help,” he said. “We watch out for them, and they feel like they fit in more.”

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Tammy L. Lane is website editor for Fayette County Public Schools


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