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Educating the Autistic in South Brunswick

The development of empathy in the entire school population plays an important role in educating kids on the autism spectrum in South Brunswick.

In April, Autism Awareness Month shined a spotlight on a complex brain disorder that is often misunderstood. But in South Brunswick's schools, the work to understand and educate kids suffering from autism spectrum disorder continues year-round. 

 is home to the South Brunswick elementary level autism program. The school not only educates kids on the autism spectrum, but also works to develop awareness among their peers to develop understanding.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about kids with autism is that they don't attach or aren't connected with people," said Brunswick Acres Autism Specialist Cynthia Helfgott. "They do have social deficits that may lead some people to believe that they don't want to be part of society, but they just learn to connect differently. There are kids all along the spectrum. There are some people living on the spectrum that you wouldn't even know had it."

. The disorders typically manifest between the ages of 2-years-old and 3-years-old, according to Autism Speaks.org.

The disorders can be characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulty with social interaction, difficulty with both verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Those with autism may suffer from intellectual disability and difficulty with motor coordination, in addition to attention and physical health issues, according to Autism Speaks.

"I started in this field in the 1970's when people weren't even aware of what autism was," Helfgott said. "Not only has awareness increased since then, but people now look at the whole spectrum instead of just looking at the more severe cases. There are kids with high-functioning autism, or Asperger's Syndrome."

The district's special education program begins in the Preschool Disabled program and runs all the way through job training skills that last beyond the end of high school.

Students in the Preschool Disabled program are taught by a certified special education teacher and assisted by paraprofessionals. The program provides speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, when needed. 

"When a student is evaluated by the Child Study Team, we look at all areas of their development. Educational needs, behavioral needs, their learning profile and where the gaps are," Helfgott said. "We see what type of programming they need and if our autism program is necessary. When they come into class their individual evaluation process is written with goals and objectives they need to improve on or learn. The teacher assesses where they are in the program and starts teaching from that point."

Children in the program are actively involved in exploring their environment through hands-on learning and interaction with peers. 

"We have a self-correcting system where the data guides the decisions," Helfgott said. "We see what's working and then change it if we need to make improvements. It's very data driven. If behavior isn't changing for the better than the applied behavior analysis wasn't properly done."

Early intervention and the constant repetition of skills are crucial to the effectiveness of the program, which stresses the importance of improving social abilities through interaction with typical peers. This includes inclusion in mainstream classrooms for a period of time and various job-training skills. Students work on developing independence with exercises focusing on everyday tasks, like grocery shopping and finances.

"We start everyone in some type of inclusion program to build their independence, and we have a reverse inclusion program where other students come into work and play with them to develop their social skills," Helfgott said. "The goal is for them to reach their full potential, and what that means for one child may be different from another. We want them to be as independent as possible and to live a rich, full life."

Autism education at Brunswick Acres doesn't just focus on the kids in the program, but also mainstream students who are taught understanding for the nature of the disorder. During Autism Awareness Month, the school shared an autism fact of the day during morning announcements. There is also a bulletin board where kids can ask questions about autism and get answers to their queries.

"We want to give students the understanding about what a disability is," said Brunswick Acres Principal Neel Desai. "We give them age appropriate answers to questions like, 'why is so and so not looking at me.' We have teachers who organize autism awareness activities. One of our teachers set up lesson plans for the staff at different grade levels to help understand how these children learn, what it feels like and how it affects kids. We want to show the kids what it's like to be a child with autism."

Desai added that the emphasis on inclusion and developing social skills develops long-term dividends for these students and their parents when they go out into the community.

"We had a parent tell one of our teachers they were so happy because they could finally take their child to a restaurant and have a sit down meal without anything happening," Desai said. "This child could never do that before because of a lack of social skills. Parents see things like being able to take their kids with them to the grocery store as an important level of independence. They can sit down and play games with the whole family and participate."

Awareness at Brunswick Acres also extends to the faculty. Helfgott said the school had nearly 100 percent participation in an autism awareness t-shirt drive to raise funds for Autism Speaks.

"This is a very enlightened school," Desai said. "In our school, these kids are treated like any other kid. They have friends in the general population, they talk to the students in the hallways. It's very enlightened."

With studies showing that interaction between general population students and kids with disabilities pays dividends for both sides, Helfgott said the awareness and understanding developed by the Brunswick Acres inclusion program provides tangible evidence of these benefits on a daily basis.

"This affects the behavior of our typical students in a positive way," she said. "One of our students who wouldn't look at other children was in a class and ended up being paired with a kid who had some behavioral difficulties. He could be disrespectful and made fun of others. I saw the two of them laughing together over a joke, and it was incredible to see. Here was a kid who he probably would've made fun of before and they were socializing with each other and having fun. The power of inclusion is amazing."

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