WINSLOW — It looked like finger painting.

Three Winslow Elementary School students sat together in the center of an otherwise empty classroom and drew lines, circles and squiggles into a thick coating of shaving cream on a tabletop, while four educators looked on.

It was not an art project, though. It was an activity to help the three students engage their tactile senses and explore a world that, for them, is out of reach.

They have autism.

Autism is a condition with a wide range of symptoms and severity. In its milder forms, autism causes social awkwardness. At the other extreme, autism closes people off from the world around them. They are trapped within their minds. Some are unable to communicate. Some are averse to hearing, touching or seeing.

“The children we work with are so smart,” said Linda Lemieux, a 13-year veteran of the school’s special education program. “We just have to tap into that. We have to find it.”

Autism is on the rise in the United States. A report published last week by the Centers for Disease Control estimated one out of every 88 children was identified as having a form of autism. The report, using 2008 data, showed an increase of more than 20 percent from two years earlier.

Amy Benham, a special education teacher who heads the autism program at the elementary school, said Wednesday she was aware of the latest estimate.

“One in 88,” she said. “It’s scary stuff.”

Over the past six years, Benham has seen the population of autistic students rise from three to its current enrollment of 10. She said the school’s program is prepared to meet the growing challenge through a mix of emerging technologies, hard work and collaboration with parents.

Something was wrong

Carl Weiss vividly remembers the day his son, Will, was diagnosed with autism at 22 months.

“I wept like a baby. I cried for a day and a half,” he said.

Even before the 2003 diagnosis, Weiss knew something was wrong. He wondered why his son didn’t respond to his name, didn’t point at objects, didn’t play peekaboo and didn’t seem to recognize his parents.

“You know when a father comes home and a child’s eyes light up?” Weiss, 44, said. “I didn’t see smiles, or twinkles, or emotions — the sorts of things parents look for.”

After the diagnosis, Weiss and his wife, Stephanie, spent three days in despair.

Then they rallied.

“We both looked at each other and came to the conclusion that we didn’t cause it. There was nothing we did to create this; it’s just the way it is,” he said. “We decided the best approach was just to love him to death and be the best parents we could be. But it was difficult.”

Stephanie Weiss said she had to rewrite the dreams she had for her son. Her new ones included hoping her son could someday speak and perform basic tasks.

Will is now 10 and a student at Winslow Elementary School. While his personal improvements over the years may seem subtle, his mother said they are profound steps. She credits the school’s autism program for Will’s successes.

Will has learned to guide himself through the school with limited assistance, use computers, read certain words and speak.

“William continues to surprise us. He didn’t speak at all until he was about 7,” she said. “That dream has been fulfilled. Even though it’s tremendously difficult for him to speak, we know that he has a voice when he really tries.”

‘It’s the whole person’

There are 512 students and 31 classroom teachers at Winslow Elementary School, a kindgergarten through fifth grade school. Ten of those students have autism and are supported by one teacher and seven education techs. One student is fully integrated into a regular classroom and studies alongside his peers under the direction of a single classroom teacher. Other autistic students join classrooms under the guidance of education techs. Three students meet daily in a classroom dedicated to their needs. They each receive one-on-one support from techs under the direction of Teacher Amy Benham.

But even those three profoundly autistic students are integrated into the general population at least twice per day, during morning meetings in classrooms and recess.

For the remainder of the school day, the ed techs help the three students develop a wide range of skills, from reading and speech to teeth brushing and hand washing.

“It’s not just academic-based,” Benham said of the program. “It’s the whole person.”

Communication is a major area of focus, she said. Initially, the students couldn’t communicate their needs or wants. Now, through the use of a few tools, the students can.

One tool is called picture communication. The students have binders filled with Velcro-backed paper squares. Each square has an icon to communicate an idea or an object, like food or drink. Students can remove an icon, or a series of icons, from the binder and affix them to a card to express their needs.

The same concept is found within a computer program that students can access through iPads. In that case, however, when icons are tapped, the needs are expressed by a computer-generated voice.

“Now that the iPad has come along, it’s revolutionized what’s going on in the classroom,” she said.

Through Will Weiss’ use of an iPad at home, his parents made a surprising discovery. Will had learned to read certain words on his own. Stephanie Weiss brought the discovery to the school, and his teachers began working with him to develop his skills further.

“He looked at us like, ‘Finally. Thanks for putting words in front of me, because I’ve been reading since I was seven,'” Benham said.

Each student a puzzle

While state and federal governments determine the appropriate curriculum for public school systems, the needs for autistic students cannot be standardized.

Each autistic child’s needs are unique, and it requires investigation by educators to determine what they are, Benham said.

“It really is a puzzle,” she said of each student. “It’s trying to figure out which piece goes where and how. Some kids don’t have a couple of pieces, and we have to figure it out. Some kids are missing more.

“We try to look at the student as a whole and we talk to the parent about what their dreams are and what their worries are. We try to work together to make a good plan for the student.”

The plans are called individualized education plans, or IEPs, which are covered by the U.S. Individuals with Disabilites Act, she said.

Benham said schools are increasingly well equipped and funded to deal with autism, even as its prevalence continues to rise. But she’s concerned about the future of her students when they leave school and the support ends. They’ll go from having between 30 and 40 hours of support every week to just a few hours a day in adult services, she said.

Until then, the staff at Winslow Elementary School is doing everything it can to prepare the students for that eventual transition, Benham said. She also hopes society is prepared.

“These kids are here and they can learn. They’re smart and they understand. They have more going on inside than you realize,” she said. “Autism is going to be a part of everybody’s life. As (children with autism) grow older, they’re going to be part of your community, your church, your workplace or wherever. That’s why we work so hard with the kids to help them fit in.”

In the meantime, the Weiss family continues to see new accomplishments in their son.

“We celebrate every little victory. When he does something independently, we are just overjoyed,” she said. “Will buckled his own seatbelt the other day. It seems like such a little thing, but at 10 years old we’ll say, ‘Wow, he did that himself,’ and we’ll get so happy.”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239

[email protected]


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