Parents, educators gather to share information, resources on autism

CEDAR FALLS | Joey Elser’s desk is set apart from others in the Cedar Heights Elementary School special education classroom and has partitions on three sides.

“He’s really easily distracted, and so being behind the divider eliminates the distractions,” said teacher Lauren McDonald.

The 11-year-old only sits at the desk when he needs to work on his own, though. Joey has opportunities throughout the day to interact with other students, which is an important goal for him.

An individual education plan has been created for Joey, who is autistic. He’s one of six children at the school with that diagnosis. A team of educators meets regularly with Joey’s parents to discuss his needs and challenges.

But Carrie Elser, Joey’s mom, said dealing with students who have autism spectrum disorder can still be challenging for educators with the best intentions. What works for one student on the spectrum may not work for another.

“I feel like it’s a re-education process every year,” she said, as her son gets a new classroom teacher. “We have a very one-size-fits-all (system) right now, and we need to broaden that conversation.”

She got involved with the Collaborative Autism Team, which holds quarterly forums at Area Education Agency 267. The team started last year with parents and administrators in Waterloo Community Schools and has since expanded to include the Cedar Falls School District and AEA 267.

“We come together and plan the larger team forums,” said Susie Lund, a Waterloo Schools instructional coach who chairs the planning team. The forums feature speakers and are intended to foster open dialogue between parents and educators on finding the best solutions for students with autism.

The next forum is Tuesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in conference rooms A and B at the AEA 267 conference center, 3712 Cedar Heights Drive. Monica Rouse from the Access for Special Kids Resource Center will talk about ways that schools and families can work together to help students who are autistic.

Autism is a group of complex brain development disorders characterized by varying degrees of difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Milder forms, such as Asperger’s syndrome, have been classified as part of the spectrum in recent years.

A growing number of students are being diagnosed with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released a study showing one in 68 children across the U.S. has autism, a 30 percent increase from two years earlier. The estimate is based on a review of 2010 records for 8-year-olds at 11 monitoring sites across the country.

That growing prevalence is one of the reasons Elser thinks the CAT forum is an important resource for parents and educators.

“Autism isn’t going away,” she said. The first two forums that were held drew 100 and 80 people, most of whom were parents. “We’ve encouraged educators as much as parents to come because it’s about creating a partnership.”

Suzanne Bartlett, another Cedar Falls parent who is part of the team, said both special and general education teachers are welcome at the forums so they can learn more about “best practices for teaching to every child in the room who doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold.” Bartlett has been grateful for the support she’s found through the CAT forums to help navigate the education system for her 13-year-old son, John, a Holmes Junior High School student who is autistic.

“Parents are desperate to do anything that will help their kids,” she said. “This is our kid’s one chance to have an education.”

Elser noted that at one point schools primarily focused on life skills for autistic students, who were largely kept out of general education classrooms. Educators now recognize the importance of including students with autism in general education classrooms at least part of the time.

Elser said her son spends just over half of his time in a general education fourth-grade classroom.

His desk there is still set apart from other students and includes partitions to avoid distractions. He is also accompanied by a para-educator. But he does have opportunities to interact with classmates.

On a recent morning, Joey was given two cards, each with the name of a student on it. His task was to locate the students and give each one their card. “That’s one of the things we’re working on is him initiating conversations and social interactions,” said Principal Jon Wiebers.

Later, Joey worked on multiplication flash cards with several other students. They showed him the problem and he wrote down the answer on a small whiteboard. He used a similar method to work through problems on a modified math test.

Elser knows “that there are really good things going on” in the schools for students with autism. But she and other parents want their children educated to the highest level possible. They see the collaborative working relationships that can be developed through the CAT forums as important to accomplishing that.

“These kids aren’t easy, there’s no sugarcoating that,” said Bartlett. “They’re challenging, so that’s why it’s important to work together.”

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