Story and photo by MAKAYLA STOWELL
You’re confused and scared. You have no idea what’s going on around you. You feel completely alone. You are not sure why there are so many people around you. This is how school can feel for students with autism.
Experts say it can be difficult for students with autism to get an education and do well in school. While autism has a very wide spectrum of symptoms, most students dealing with autism find it difficult to learn in a normal classroom setting.
Some individuals need very few educational accommodations. It can be as simple as a few extra minutes on a test or even an extra five-minute break in the middle of class. In these less extreme cases, it is often difficult to even tell that the student has a learning disability.
In advanced cases of autism, more specific accommodations may be necessary. Some students may require an assistant to take notes for them or walk with them to classes. Some students may need someone to assist them in the test taking environment and extra time to complete the exams.
Chris Burningham, an advisor for the Center for Disability Services at the University of Utah, said any reasonable accommodation the student needs will be provided free of charge to the student. It is all part of the American Disability Act which is a federal law that states that any company or institution is required to provide the necessary accommodations for those with disabilities. These can be anything from an interpreter for those who are hard of hearing to a note taker for those who have learning disabilities such as autism.
He said what they aim for is equal access. When a note taker is provided, the student is still required to attend the class. He said the office is now leaning more toward using Smartpens and not note takers.
A Smartpen records lectures while the student takes notes. It is used with a special notebook and can play back specific parts of lectures based on where the pen is touched on the paper.
Burningham also provided some statistics about the students that the Center for Disability Services helped during the 2011-2012 school year at the U. During that year,1,477 students were registered with the center. That is approximately 4.7 percent of the student population. He said that about 40 or 50 of them were autistic.
He said that ultimately the biggest service the center provides to students is advocacy with their professors. The advisors provide suggestions to the professors about how they can help students succeed and serve as a communication source between the student and the professors.
Another service provided to students with autism is a support group. The group meets every Friday afternoon. The goal of the group is to help students socialize and make friends who understand what having autism is like.
Kjersti Parkes, who teaches drama at Hunter High School in West Valley City, said she too provides accommodations for her student with autism.
“I have to be more patient with him and I grade him differently,” Parkes said. However, she said she did not receive any special training on how to deal with students with disabilities.
Parkes said she has to be familiar with his IEP, or individualized learning plan. This is a plan set up by the school, parents and teachers that outlines how to best help students learn. This is just one way students with disabilities are being accommodated in the public school system.
“Sometimes he gets anxious and I have to take some extra time and calm him down,” Parkes said. This is the only way having a student with autism has ever interrupted her class.
The student, who is in her beginning theater class, is required to perform a Shakespeare monologue like the other students. Parkes said this student’s monologue always gives everyone a good laugh. “He adds modern day words and loves to make the class laugh with his interpretation,” Parkes said.
Some students in the public school system receive assistance outside of the classroom as well.
Leanne Baker works privately as an applied behavioral analysis therapist. Baker offers a unique insight into how autism effects education. She uses the principles of punishment and reward to help children with autism learn appropriate means of behavior that can be practiced in the classroom. These behaviors can include echoic or mimicking noises, motor movements and many other behaviors most individuals would consider normal.
“Students with autism often lack these basic developmental skills, especially those related to socializing,” Baker said.
She helps students with autism in kindergarten through high school learn to fit in with other students and learn how to socialize with them. This can help the students with autism ultimately do better in school when they feel they are welcomed and understood.
Baker typically works in private homes with students. Since private homes are not government-funded institutions, the students’ parents pay Baker. Sometimes the fee can be quite high depending on how many hours she spends with the students each week.
Not every student receives extra help at home, however. Some families cannot afford to provide their children extra assistance and accommodations at home. The only assistance they receive is at the schools themselves.
Some students with autism are extremely gifted and smart, but don’t know how to express those skills and use them to their advantage. Part of the accommodations provided in school helps students learn how to use their knowledge in the right way.