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‘Every child is unique’

Autism Awareness Month encourages acceptance, kindness

By Evelyn Seffinga

Special education teachers at Lakeview Elementary School are calling for the community to be understanding and embrace differences this Autism Awareness Month.

“Every child is unique,” special education teacher Stacie Stensrud said. “Even if a child has autism, that isn’t what defines them. They are still a child; the biggest thing is getting to know them.

“They still enjoy the same fun things that any other child enjoys. They love bubbles, they love to play, they love to run, so just seeing them for them, rather than the disability, I think that is important.”

The teachers called for patience from the community when they see a parent struggling with their children in a public place.

“Don’t always think of it as a parenting thing, it could be a child with autism and it might be just the way that child reacts because they are overwhelmed with things,” Stensrud said.

“Our goal with our students — their language is limited — is to be able to figure out what the keys are to help them learn because they don’t learn as typical children.”

Stensrud said teachers utilize trial and error, modified curriculum options and different strategies to help each child find their highest potential in the classroom and in life.

Another goal of the special education teachers at Lakeview is to incorporate their students into a mainstream classroom as much as possible.

“We want (the students) to be with typical peers as much as they can, so our biggest goal is to have them be happy and successful and be able to interact and be a successful person in life, at whatever level that is,” Stensrud said.

“Our goal is to get all children into the mainstream as much as possible,” said Paula Twedt, another special education teacher. She added that the objective of the teachers is to help their students grow.

“When they talk about a spectrum disorder, there is such a wide range of children.”

Stensrud explained that some children with autism are able to transition to a mainstream classroom and when they get older, no one would know they have autism.

Other students, like many of those in Stensrud’s and Twedt’s classrooms, are less able to communicate or transition.

“(Autistic children) can’t tell you things, you know,” Stensrud said. “They can pull your hand and take you to something you want, that is kind of their communication.”

Lakeview Elementary School paraeducator Denise Fisher works with students Friday. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

The teachers established that from an education standpoint, the students are not lacking any resources in Albert Lea.

“We have been part of a grant, we have been using the STAR curriculum — which is designed for students with autism — and so I think with the strategies in our program, we do really well,” Stensrud said.

The STAR curriculum — strategies for teaching, based on autism research — is an evidence-based program that has been implemented across community schools. The program helps implement strategies for teaching functional skills and language to children with autism.

Coaches from the program visit classrooms to help the educators implement the strategies of the program.

The special education teachers at Lakeview agreed that Albert Lea, like many other rural towns, lacks the resources for parents and families with autistic and special needs children.

“Our resources at school aren’t any less, but resources in the community to support parents — that part is lacking,” Stensrud said.

“Parents are a little frustrated, I think, sometimes, at support group trying to find applied behavior analysis or ABA, or in-home therapy — there isn’t anyone who does that in our area.”

Parents are always looking for ways to get their children involved, but those children still need support, Twedt said.

Albert Lea has had adaptive learning activities such as dance classes and sports programs for children with special needs in the past, although these programs have been missing as of late.

“We have some great resources, it’s just that there are some parts that are missing,” Stensrud said.

Like many communities, Albert Lea is adjusting and adapting as demands change.

Some programs that are available in Albert Lea to parents with autistic children are speech and occupational therapy, social skills training and “functional” training — such as shopping and cooking.

“You’re always looking for the best for your child, so no matter where you are, you’re going to be seeking something else — that something could be better to improve your child’s life,” Twedt said.

Autism Awareness Month has inspired teachers at Lakeview to educate parents, peers and other teachers through handouts, conversation, a booth at the Family Fun Festival and handing out treats. Stensrud helps facilitate a group to help parents of autistic children.

The Albert Lea Autism Support Group meets the second Monday of the month during the school year to hear speakers, learn from each other’s experiences, ask questions, find ways to help their children and find support. The meetings are from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Brookside Education Center. Parents, family members, professionals and community members involved with the wellbeing of children with special needs are encouraged to attend.

Questions about the support group can be directed to Stacie.Stensrud@alschools.org.

About Evelyn Seffinga

Evelyn Seffinga covers education and arts and culture for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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