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A look at autism

Posted: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 1:00 am | Updated: 2:17 pm, Tue Jun 4, 2013.

... Madisan dancing in the hallway ... Alex singing along with a song ... Oscar spinning on a toy while holding his little hammer ... Meadow playing with toys and trying to hug Oscar. ... and later, students sitting at work stations completing tasks or working with a speech or occupational therapist. Occasional outbursts can be heard when one of the students does not want to do something. Tantrums are thrown in severe cases. Good behavior is rewarded by extra snacks and playtime. All of this constitutes a typical day at school by most accounts. The four students at this school range in age from 4 to 9 years. Most complete the same activities with slight variations according to their particular needs. They each follow a different daily schedule, only coming together for morning group, lunch and outside playtime. But the separation doesn't bother them. Actually, for the most part, they prefer it. These students attend a special school called The Helping House, and each struggles with different degrees of autism or other developmental delays. Amanda Johnson, who has a long list of degrees and certifications, not only in teaching, but also in special education with emphasis in autism and severe emotional disorders, opened the school with Josie Johnson in the fall of last year. Josie's 9-year-old daughter Madisan attends the school daily. Johnson is assisted by a teacher's aide, Maria Tostado, and an intern, Nikki Roberts, from SFA. Autism, according to the Autism Society of America Web site, is a spectrum disorder that allows varying symptoms and severities in the 1-in-150 children diagnosed in the United States. Major signs of autism are difficulty with verbal and non-verbal skills, lack of social interaction and repetitive behaviors, and the symptoms generally appear within a child's first three years. "Autism is a spectrum disorder," Johnson said. "It's phenomenal that no two kids are alike." Jan Ward from Professional Speech and Language Services uses puzzles as a symbol for autism because, like a puzzle there are many different pieces to it - speaking abilities, information processing, degrees of understanding - and the treatment for each child - therapies, diet, learning styles - also have to be pieced together. Where Hollywood usually portrays the savants who have special skills, such as Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman" and Miko Hughes in "Mercury Rising," less than 10 percent of autistic people have those skills. "One thing where I get stuck is I don't know what a lay person knows about autism," Johnson said. What one sees on television may be accurate for someone, but not for all autistic people. "They (autistic or developmentally delayed children) can be very unpredictable," Johnson said. "They can be very loving. They learn like other kids learn." It just may take more effort. With Madisan, who has an appraxic speech diagnosis where her oral motor skills aren't as developed, it was difficult for her to understand rhyming words. After trying about eight different strategies, Johnson decided to take the auditory component out, and Madisan was able to match the words visually. "I really feel strongly that it doesn't matter if your kid comes to school here," Johnson said. "I want to be a resource. If someone gets a diagnoses of autism, there's going to be a whole process (of learning and looking for resources), and you can cut a lot of time off that process if you know who to go to. If they'll call me, I can help them. "It's not that we are limited to this building and these four kids. We want to have a bigger outreach than that." Among their "bigger outreaches" are support groups. They offer a bilingual support group to parents with autistic children and a gluten/casein-free diet group, which is recommended by Johnson for all children with autism. Other services include parent training, social events, community outings and peer mentoring. The school can help parents with children not yet diagnosed, too. Oscar doesn't have an official medical diagnosis, but he has social impairment, language impairment and self-stimulatory behavior, which are the three main components of autism. "I'm not a diagnostician, and I'm not a doctor, but to me his development delay lines right up with what I do, with the kids that I work with that do have a specific autism or pervasive developmental disorder label," Johnson said. Some parents do not want to hear the diagnosis of autism but will accept that their child is developmentally delayed. For many, there is a grieving process for the parents, which can be healthy for them, but not good for the kids, Johnson said. "There needs to be some action, something needs to be done, I think support groups are great for that grieving ... grieving the child you're not going to have, or that you 'lost' at that time." The Helping House offers other benefits for children in addition to the one-on-one attention. The students also receive customized lesson plans. "In public schools, it's (required by) law that you write their goals on their grade level," Johnson said. "A kid in the ninth grade has to have their goal on a ninth grade level, even if developmentally they are 6. It gets to be kind of hard to do. We keep them caught up cognitively, and we can also focus on behavioral and functional living goals. "It's really important that behaviors are manageable at a young age, because the bigger they are, the more difficult they can be. My goal for the kids, when they leave here, is that we have done everything we can as an intensive early learning program to get them ready to mainstream. "I would like to think that they all have that possibility (of living independently)," Johnson said. "It's just finding the right combination of treatments and therapies. "It's so intriguing, because everyone wants to find the answer, and I don't know that there is one answer," she said. "I think it's going to be a combination of things for every kid." To contact The Helping House, call 936-371-1536 or visit the Web site at Donations are accepted to cover expenses and provide tuition/scholarships. Computers are also needed for the students. Madisan Johnson, 9, completes a task of fitting shapes into the correct place at the independent work station at The Helping House. Activities are lined up along the shelf above the desk. As a student finishes one task, he or she will place it in the completed basket and move on to the next until every task is complete. Then, the student will replace all the tasks on the shelf for the next person. Christy Wooten/The Daily Sentinel The Helping House in Nacogdoches is a school for autistic and developmentally delayed children. They complete activities, interact with one another and learn important skills which will help them live a more normal life. Christy Wooten/The Daily Sentinel

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