Sunday, November 16, 2008

Troy, Mo., mom reaches out to help kids understand autism

Troy, Mo., mom reaches out to help kids understand autism
By Jessica Bock

TROY, MO. — JoEllen Kessler had been in front of her son's class for only a few minutes when one of the second-graders asked, "How did Ryan get autism?"

"We don't know. No one knows, really," Kessler said.

Parents like Kessler still have lots of their own questions about autism. But what brought the stay-at-home mom, 41, into her son's classroom recently was the answers she has about Ryan.

Pushing aside her nerves, she spoke to the class fueled by hope that a little education about autism will go a long way with her son's classmates.

"You guys probably notice Ryan does odd things," Kessler told the class. "I'm here because I want to help all of you understand Ryan."

Chances are, kids these days are going to meet someone in their life with autism or a related disorder. Schools now know of more children with autism than ever before. In Missouri, the number of students with autism has increased from 934 about 10 years ago to more than 5,000 today.

Those increasing numbers of students with autism mean schools are challenged to develop plans for their education and train teachers and staff. Teaching the other students about autism can sometimes be an afterthought.

Like other children with autism, Ryan, 7, has trouble talking and other issues that can make it difficult to make friends.

That's why, after hearing about "The Autism Acceptance Book" for children by Ellen Sabin, Kessler decided to speak to her son's class at Boone Elementary. The book explains autism, and Kessler brought a copy with her to class.

School officials encouraged Kessler, who has since spoken to other classes at the school and has more presentations planned. Students see Ryan and other kids with autism each day in class,

at lunch and on the playground and know they are different, but they didn't really understand how.

"I think teachers in general are overwhelmed with responsibilities, and we don't always feel like we're the experts in everything," said Lisa Hamlett, a counselor at Boone. "Hearing it straight from Ryan's mom was really beneficial for everyone."

Kessler said it isn't easy. "But you're the mom. You're the advocate," she said.

Autism experts say what Kessler is doing is important and somewhat uncommon. Most parents don't feel comfortable enough to give a school presentation, said Staci Bowlen, a director with the Judevine Center for Autism, which offers support to children and adults with autism and their families throughout Missouri.

"There is such a need for this," she said. Children with autism often don't have the same social skills as others, and kids sometimes focus on those differences. They're curious, and hearing from a parent gives them the opportunity to ask questions, Bowlen said.

During her time with Ryan's class, Kessler brought one student to the front and asked the other students to make soft buzzing noises while she tickled the back of his neck. Then she asked him to try and answer a math question. The boy blinked a few times and stared back at the class, unable to respond.

"It was hard to concentrate, right? That's what Ryan feels every day in the classroom," Kessler said. "These things don't bother most people very much. But some people with autism feel their senses very, very strongly."

Those conditions are probably why Ryan will sometimes walk on tiptoe, stick out his tongue or tap too hard during a game of tag on the playground, Kessler explained to the kids.

Having Ryan in a class with children who understand that they can help is a great asset for Ryan's development, Kessler wrote in a note sent home to parents the day of her presentation. "The best tool for any child with autism is a strong support group."

Before she left, Kessler told them Ryan likes camping and four-wheeling, and she encouraged them to ask him to play.

Nodding her head, one girl said, "I'll ask him every day."

No comments: