Every day is autism awareness day for ‘Challenges’ program

Every day is autism awareness day for 'Challenges' program

Every day is autism awareness day for ‘Challenges’ program

More than 450 students and staff of Middletown Primary School dressed in blue Wednesday and formed a human puzzle piece, the symbol of autism, to help recognize April as Autism Awareness Month. Middletown Primary School hosts one of the county’s “Challenges” programs that serves the needs of students with autism and severe communication disorders.

Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014 2:00 am

Every day is autism awareness day for ‘Challenges’ program

By Rachel S. Karas News-Post Staff

The Frederick News-Post


Parker Langston, 6, can’t chat about his day when he arrives home from school. 

But after more than a year in Middletown Primary School’s “Challenges” program, he is finally able to communicate his needs and wants instead of crying — something his mother, Heather, feared he’d never manage.

“They’ve really taught him how to enjoy being around people,” she said.

Challenges uses pictures, sign language, iPads and more to build communication and interpersonal skills in students such as Parker, who have been diagnosed with autism and other severe communication disorders. 

The specialized program serves 65 students across six Frederick County public schools: Middletown Primary, Carroll Manor and Middletown elementary schools; Oakdale and Gov. Thomas Johnson middle schools; and Gov. Thomas Johnson High School.

More than 560 students are formally recognized by the school system as having autism, said Dan Martz, special education and psychological services director. Parents choose whether to enroll their child in Challenges based on recommendations by school and special education staff.

One in 68 American children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated March 27. The new figure is about 30 percent higher than previously thought in 2012. Autism is also almost five times more common among boys than girls, the report said.

After more than a decade in practice, the Challenges program has fostered greater inclusion and understanding of autism among even the littlest students, teachers said.

In support of Autism Awareness Month, Middletown Primary students on Wednesday formed a human puzzle piece — a well-known symbol of the complexity and uniqueness of the autism spectrum — outside the school. Similar celebrations will continue through April at schools countywide.

Educators said hosting Challenges in their buildings makes every day an autism awareness day.

“What we’ve seen is an incredible shift of tolerance and acceptance of people of varying abilities, backgrounds … different lifestyles,” said Cindy Pearl, a Challenges teacher at Middletown Primary. “Different, not less, is becoming a real important part to recognize.”

Christina Konstantas, a Challenges teacher at Carroll Manor Elementary, said children in general education are taught to make Challenges students feel welcome and often say hello in the hallway.

“It’s not that (Challenges) kids don’t want to respond to them,” Konstantas said of one-sided conversations among students. “It’s that they’re learning how to respond.”

Unified classes such as peer physical education and art pair Challenges students with first- and second-grade general education buddies as a way to encourage communication to transition into a regular classroom setting.

That interaction builds skills used outside of school as well, Heather Langston said. She said she can now take her son to the park without worrying he may hurt others.

“Peer P.E. taught Parker how to play with other children,” she said. “His partner last year was so patient with him and talked him through things as simple as catching a ball.”

Budget constraints sometimes limit Challenges teachers from buying new classroom materials or programs, and they are grateful for the support of numerous instructional assistants and speech therapists.

Pearl said their help will become even more crucial as the number of autistic children and class sizes continue to grow.

Langston said the Challenges program’s approach and staff-to-student ratio is still overwhelmingly positive. Her son keeps calm thanks to his rigid classroom routine and a daily schedule using pictures, a technique that she now uses at home.

Helping parents create functional lives and the joy of hearing autistic students speak is most rewarding for teachers. And when they can move a child completely out of the program and into a classroom with their peers, Pearl said, that’s the biggest success of all.

“We’ve changed the quality and the outcomes of their life forever.”

Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.

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Thursday, April 3, 2014 2:00 am.

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Dan Martz,

Carroll Manor Elementary School,

Middletown Primary School,

Heather Langston,

Parker Langston

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