Parker teacher leads school-wide autism awareness campaign
PARKER— When you walk into Mountain View Elementary in Parker, you’ll notice a wall of more than 400 unique puzzle pieces designed by students, demonstrating how all individuals “fit” together. Some drew pictures, some wrote about themselves and talked about what made them special and unique. This was just one way teachers and staff used the month of April— which is National Autism Awareness month— as an opportunity to teach kids about autism and inclusivity.
Interactive true or false questions and answers about autism are scattered on walls throughout the building— such as “Autism is very rare” (false) and “There is no cure for autism” (true)-- engaging kids to learn more about the disorder.
“It is fun to watch the kids go through the halls on their way to class in the mornings, stopping with a friend and answering and discussing the questions and what they feel is the ‘right’ answer,” said Kate Bufton, Mountain View’s Community Liaison and Health Assistant. “Teachers have been walking their classes around the halls allowing the conversation to go even further.”
Mountain View first grade teacher, Sarah Small, is the driving force behind this awareness movement. Her passion stems from her time as a special education assistant, prior to coming to Mountain View, in a primary level classroom for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Here, I saw autism's best side — someone saying his first sentence with a talking device, independently completing a morning routine, and looking out for a friend in danger— and it's worst side: meltdowns, runaways, aggression and more and these were all part of the daily routine,” Small said.
“The beauty of the school was that the students in the general education population were so used to having students with autism in their classrooms that they were completely unfazed by a sudden and exuberant display of behavior. That's just how their classmates acted sometimes, and they didn't need to know more. That was one of my favorite things about the school,” she added.
Small noted that with Mountain View being smaller than her previous school, individuals don’t see students from the severe needs classroom quite as much. However, one day in February, her class came in from recess to find a friend lying on the floor in tears, being supported by his paraprofessional.
“The kids didn't know how to react. They behaved appropriately, but not appropriately enough for my standards,” Small said. “I decided to do some special lessons and activities in my classroom to build dialogue around Autism Spectrum Disorder and inclusion, and to my delight the whole school jumped on board. We decorated the puzzle pieces — the symbol for autism awareness — and I shared resources for teachers to use in their classrooms.”
Small’s students met their peers in the severe needs program and they all spent an afternoon tie dying T-shirts together.
“They loved every minute of the experience, and I loved seeing the transformation that a little bit of dialogue brought about in my students,” she said. “They are so interested to learn about autism, and they have asked me so many incredible questions. We're at the point now where they know enough to start teaching other people, which they are doing quite impressively.”
“In the past weeks, I've seen my students transform, and I think our autism awareness lessons are the reason why. They're more graceful, more compassionate, more respectful, and more mature. In only a few short weeks, they will be leaving me for second grade, and I'm proud to say that they're moving forward in life as even better human beings than when they entered my world.”