Autism program begins second year at Lakeridge - Elementary school staff and parents embrace Spectrum Program

By Tracy Drinkwater

Several buddies look out for a special boy on the playground. Another helps him in the classroom and saves a seat for him at circle time.

Another student gets assigned as a buddy for a Spectrum student at lunch recess. Her friends are ready to go play, but they wait with her since she refuses to leave until the girl is ready to go. They all leave together to go out to the playground.

They may not be random acts of kindness, but in these cases, each child receiving help and kindheartedness from ``buddies'' has been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Lakeridge Elementary School is home to the school district's Autism Spectrum Program.

Welcoming these students has allowed the school to form a special sense of community, said Lakeridge principal Ralph Allen. In the program, students who have been diagnosed with some form of the disorder not only have their own classroom, but also spend part of their day with students in regular classrooms, on the playground and at lunch.

The addition of two new students this year brings the total number in the program to 11.

Allen and special education teacher Michael Patterson said there was some anxiety last year for parents and staff at Lakeridge. But after a year everyone has a much better understanding of the responsibility they are undertaking. Teachers also realized that the techniques they have learned to educate ASD students are great for teaching all students.

``The positive staff attitude has been inspirational,'' said Allen.

According to Allen, Lakeridge Elementary was eager to support having a special education program such as the Spectrum Program placed at the south end school.

It is also about ``educating the children about other differences among people besides disabilities,'' he said. ``It's about understanding.''

One indicator of success is how parents have responded. Allen stated that at the end of the last school year, several parents had requested to have their child placed in class with an ASD student. Although Allen gets a large number of requests (75 this year alone) from parents to have their child not be placed with another child for the coming year, he said only one parent this year expressed that they did not want their child placed with a student in the Spectrum Program.

Patterson talks openly with students about the special needs of ASD students. Students are told about what can come with ASD and given a chance to make comments and ask questions. Patterson uses the example of his own disability of limited vision to show that many able people have some challenge that they learn to overcome.

One of the challenges of working with individuals with ASD is that each requires a different approach, as each has a unique set of skills and deficits.

The district hired five new aides to meet the needs of the ASD students. The paraprofessional aides who work with the ASD students are paid for with special education funds from the state.

Over the course of the last year, parents and teachers have seen the positive impact that a child with special needs can have on learning in the classroom, Allen said.

Patterson, who manages the Spectrum program, said that all of the students have exceeded his expectations. The biggest surprise during the first year was the developmental growth of the ASD students.

They all have done ``so well, so quickly,'' he said.

Allen hopes they can focus more on data collection this year. Collecting frequent data on an ASD student's developmental and academic progress allows the teachers to know when to make subtle changes in educational planning for that student.

A year of the program has helped alleviate misunderstandings and ease worries. According to Allen, by the end of the year, many parents were saying, ``I'm so glad my kid was in a class with one of the (ASD) students.''

Two other elementary schools in the district already have special programs: Island Park Elementary houses the Extended Resource Room for students with special learning needs, along with the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. West Mercer Elementary hosts the developmental Preschool Program, which serves children aged three to five, including those with special needs, and the Academically Gifted Program, which addresses students in third through fifth grade who require more intellectual challenge.

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