Washington School District’s Special Education Director Camilla Justice says, “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism, because no two autistic people are exactly the same, and each person brings a unique set of talents to the table.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior. While Autism is considered a lifelong disorder, the degree of impairment in functioning because of these challenges, varies between individuals with Autism.”
Last month was Autism Acceptance Month, and the district highlighted the work its staff is doing to assist its autistic students learn.
The optimism displayed by Dana VanTine, elementary autistic support teacher at Washington Park Elementary School, and her paraprofessional assistants shows in the classroom. Students work at their own pace and learn in a non-typical way with more interaction with their teacher and assistants.
For example, Elijah, 7, and Erick, 9, are autistic brothers who learn well through art. They love to draw, and both see art as being part of their future. VanTine is pleased with Erick’s growth and the fact that while “others were learning cursive handwriting, Erick taught himself!”
The youths’ mother, Crystal Boyd, said that she and her husband moved to Washington from southern California, where schools were different. “The class size was much bigger, and the individual attention wasn’t like it is in Washington.” She has seen her sons “make great progress, learning new things and applying what they learn in school to home and in the community.”
In Devon Tonti’s class of older students, the relationship is strong between two boys she has taught for the past seven years. Frank “Great” Gordon and Christian Oliver are best friends and have been together in class since they started at Washington Park.
Unlike the younger students, the 12-year-olds are more talkative and self-assured. Both enjoy school and learning, and both play a musical instrument – trumpet for Great, and trombone for Christian.
Outside of school, time is spent on other activities: Great joined the “Bigs in Blue” program and has been matched with a local police officer – “Mr. Dave,” says Great – and Christian enjoys activities with his family, and field trips as part of the Stepping Stones program. “We went to an art festival in Morgantown.”
Great’s dad, Frank Gordon Sr., said, “I just love his teacher, Mrs. Tonti. She has really helped him. Great has come a long, long, long way from when he started school. He has made a lot of progress. I’m so proud of him. He has now been singing in the chorus for two years, and he took up playing the trumpet this year. He’s doing very well.”
Christian’s mother, Cheryl Oliver, said, “Christian used to be shy, didn’t talk much.”
“Since he had Mrs. Tonti in class, he is social, outgoing, and is so helpful, mannerly, and polite. I thank God for her and everyone at the school who put so much time, effort, and love into Christian.”
Tonti said, “Great and Christian will likely have another year here at the Park School before moving to the junior high, but they will likely be with another teacher. We have all been together so long, it is like family. Having them with another teacher before junior/senior high will allow them to get used to having another teacher to work with besides me....
“I know I will miss them terribly. They have both been like my own, and the progress each has made is tremendous. It is something wonderful to see. I am sure they will both keep moving forward in a positive way.”
VanTine said working with autistic students offers a life lesson: “As a world, we need to be more accepting of people with differences. Everyone is unique.”
To further enhance support and acceptance for those with autism, a secondary Autistic Support classroom will be added to the junior/senior high school in the fall, creating a continuum for students with autism grades K-12 in the district.
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