Autism Awareness Month
Putting together the puzzle pieces for improved awareness
April 16, 2018
Since its designation as Autism Awareness Month in 1970 by the Autism Society, the month of April has been a time of increased acceptance of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the unique challenges that those who live with it face everyday. In observance of this month-long celebration and awareness campaign, Eastside decided to tackle all facets of autism at Cherry Hill East, in the district at-large and in the community. Every Sunday in April, more coverage will be added to this package, so please check out Eastside Online throughout the month for a closer look at how autism affects our classmates, fellow community members and people around the globe.
All About the Spectrum
The term “Autism” was first used in 1908 to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients who were especially withdrawn and self-absorbed. American child psychiatrist Leo Kanne later added to this definition in 1943 as children who were highly intelligent but displayed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.”
Looking back, neither of these definitions encapsulated the vast complexities of Autism quite right. But, of course, knowledge and scientific discovery were extremely limited back then. Doctors have since come a long way, so much so that we now know that Autism is not a rigid set of conditions. Rather, Autism is best represented by a fluid spectrum of abilities in which no two cases are the same.
To better understand how the spectrum works, explore the various tabs on the interactive spectrum below.
Thinglink by Nafessa Jaigirdar
Perspective of Teachers/Aides: What is it like working with kids who have Autism?
If you aren’t one of the students on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at East, you likely don’t know about the programs set in place for students with special needs. But for those whose job it is to educate and guide those people, special education is their world.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Eastside spoke with teachers and aides throughout the school to get a closer look into what role they play in helping give the best possible education for those with special needs that walk through East’s doors.
One of those teachers is Sarah Cervo, a special education English teacher who has been at East for six years. She spends her days in an inclusion classroom, working alongside a general education teacher to create the best possible learning experience for students of all need levels. These teachers tailor their lessons to accommodate the needs of every teen within their reach.
But how does the IEP process work in the first place?
Typically, the process begins in elementary school. If a teacher suspects that a student may have some sort of learning disability, they speak with the parent and the child undergoes a series of tests. A child study team, consisting of an education assistant, special education teacher, psychologist, guidance counselor and the child’s parents, evaluates each child.
“Based on this evidence, a student is diagnosed with a learning disability or classified under a certain category of learning,” Cervo said.
At the beginning of each school year, there is an IEP meeting, where the plan for each individual student is evaluated, and changes are made if deemed necessary. Some of these students are then taught in specialized education classrooms like the one Cervo teaches in.
Teachers aren’t the only piece of the special needs support network at East. Christine Cox and Ann Tirocke are two of the many education assistants who offer both educational and emotional support.
Cox, who said she struggled in high school, decided to come to East so she can make a difference in the lives of high schoolers today, so they don’t have to suffer in the way that she did.
For Tirocke, her relation to East was slightly different.
“Coming to East was like coming home,” said the Cherry Hill West graduate, who has been working at East since 2006.
A lot has changed throughout the decades in supporting special needs students.When Cox and Tirocke were younger, special needs students were often sent to individualized classrooms. But this method isolates children from their peers, which stagnates development and can lead to social ostracization. Now, their job entails following their students from classroom to classroom to offer academic as well as emotional support. When a teacher explains a lesson in a way that a student does not understand, it’s up to Cox and Tirocke to reiterate the lesson in a way that is comprehensible to their students. They work with kids that range from having learning disabilities such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia to low and high functioning Autism.
In accordance with Autism Awareness Month, these members of the East community advocate for kindness for those who see the world through a unique lens.
“Many people do not know what these students are up against…these kids need to be treated with compassion just like anybody else,” said Cox.
This April, remember that the differences in those who have special needs should be celebrated and understood, not discriminated against.
Perspectives from Students: What is it like to have a sibling with Autism?
Claire Tremper (‘18)
I am a triplet and my two triplet brothers have autism. I do not desire to keep this information from people because I am embarrassed, it is quite the opposite. When I explain why I am the only one of the three of us who has their license, a job, and goes to a public school, it is a natural instinct for others to offer their sympathy. Although some think that growing up with autistic siblings is sad, I believe it made me the person I am today.
Ben and Clay above all have taught me the value of love and patience. I remember the first time I realized my brothers were different. New white t-shirts were passed around from student to student for everybody to write their name and a nice message at the end of the year party in first grade. Clay saw the t-shirts and thought it meant that he should get undressed and change into the new shirts. I glanced over to my brother and saw that he was undressing himself for all of my classmates to see. I bolted out of the doors of my classroom, petrified and embarrassed. My mother and father explained to me how Clay’s mind worked differently than mine, and that it did not occur to him that he was doing something wrong. At the age of seven, it is hard to embrace things that are different. However, I quickly realized that Clay did not have intentions to embarrass me, he was simply acting the only way he knew how. That is when I decided that as my brothers’ sister, I would love them and be their biggest supporter.
For me, my life is normal because it is all I know. However, just a glimpse inside my household would look stressful to anybody who has not had many interactions with somebody on the autistic spectrum. I will admit that it is hard to be supportive of my brothers all the time. Just like any other teenager, I want my space and peace and quiet. When my brother, Ben, blasts music or claps for hours on end, I know he is happy, but it gets on my last nerve. Before I had my license, I rarely got anywhere on time because of the struggle it was to pack my brothers into the car just to drive me to a rehearsal or work. Even with these challenges, I know that they are doing their best and are just trying to get along like everybody else.
I want people to know that treating somebody who is autistic with kindness is so important. The amount of people who have been rude or impatient with my brothers breaks my heart. It is not difficult to simply smile at somebody who is clearly different; it means the world to them and their families.
Arianne Martin (‘19)
I recently took a quiz on how much I know about Autism. I did well, but I really had to think about each question. I compared the questions to the experiences of my younger brother, Jimmy. Surprisingly, some of the questions did not relate to my brother at all. I started to think about how different each child with Autism is. Many people I have talked to think that Autism holds certain people back from achieving their goals. However, I have a hard time agreeing with that idea. My brother is truly one of the smartest people I know, and I’m not sure if the Autism affected his intelligence. However, I definitely know that he does not lack brain power because of it.
Despite obstacles he faces, like social barriers and sensory overload, Jimmy achieves his outstanding goals. For example, Jimmy recently competed in a Special Olympics swim meet where he won first place overall. Autism did not stop him from winning, and it is likely that he will not be stopped in the future from achieving any other goals.
I would like anyone reading this to know that Autism is just an obstacle, not a complete blockade. Children and adults with Autism can still overcome hardships and difficulties despite any challenges they face. With love and support from families and friends, Autistic people can achieve whatever they would like.
Courtesy of the Fantastic Friend's Facebook Page
Programs to support kids with Autism: Fantastic Friends
To Marissa Hacker, a 21-year-old graduate from Stockton University and a Cherry Hill native, there is no one more important to her than her twin brother, Matthew Hacker.
Matthew suffers from Autism, and as a result he was often excluded, ignored and emotionally abused throughout high school.
Though Marissa Hacker did not realize this at first, the older she got the more she started to understand just how much of an issue this was not only for her brother, but for all people on the Autism Spectrum. These kids were never quite treated the same as their peers. People would, perhaps even unintentionally, exclude them on what many of us consider to be normal, everyday activities.
“It’s frustrating to see people treat him [Matthew] that way,” Hacker said, “but I know it’s because people don’t know what to do or how to act when they come across someone who is Autistic, has Down Syndrome or other special needs.”
The real turning point for Hacker was the night before her 15th birthday. That night her brother came home crying from a summer camp because he had no friends.
This prompted Hacker, though only in high school at the time, to create the Fantastic Friends: Teens and Tweens Special Needs Social Group, a national organization that provides a welcoming environment for young adults, teens and tweens (ages 13-26) with special needs. Some of these young people have special needs. Some have only limited speaking skills. But in this group, they’re all paired up with other young people for social activities.
The group holds monthly meetings and special events, aiding them in socializing and having fun. And each June, to commemorate a year of new friendships, the organization hosts an annual prom at The Mansion in Voorhees.
Hacker still remembers the first Fantastic Friends event she organized, almost like it was yesterday. “It was a sports day,” she said fondly.
Together, they played wiffle ball and kickball and afterwards, they all went to a local lake and ate pizza as they relaxed on blankets in the sand.
“I wanted Matthew and other teens with special needs to have a place where they could make friends and feel accepted by their peers,” Hacker said. “It’s an organization to bring awareness and unconditional support and love. It’s like being a part of a giant family.”
From completing arts and crafts to dancing the night away at Prom, Fantastic Friends really does give kids with Autism the opportunity to have fun, to interact with new people and to tangentially work on their social skills in a non-threatening environment.
Though the program originated in the South Jersey region, the program quickly spread to other states after Hacker received the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her leadership in the community. With her newly acquired 36,000 dollar grant, Hacker was able to build seven chapters across the nation, spanning California, New York, Florida, Oregon and Pennsylvania to name a few.
“It’s amazing how much it [Fantastic Friends] has grown,” said Hacker. “There really is a need for it all over the world.”
Ultimately, Hacker’s main goal is to spread awareness. Growing up, she remembers being the only student to ever go out of her way to talk to kids with special needs. This wasn’t because her peers were mean. Rather, this was because she grew up with a brother who had special needs, and knew firsthand the importance of including all kids.
Through Fantastic Friends, Hacker hopes to bridge the gap between those with special needs and those without special needs. She hopes to encourage people to not be afraid to talk to someone new and maybe just maybe, make a fantastic new friend in the process.
How programs for kids with Autism differ at Cherry Hill East and West?
Up until about a decade ago, eighth-grade students with autism in the Cherry Hill school district were faced with the reality that their local high school could not offer them the kind of educational support that they needed, according to former District Supervisor of Pupil Services and current East Assistant Principal Ms. Rebecca Metzger.
“We had a group of kids in middle school who wanted to go to their local high school so we developed a program at West…the program was developed at West because that was their…neighborhood school,” said Metzger.
Thus, the program for students with autism at Cherry Hill West was born, a program that has since been recognized highly by the state, according to Metzger.
The program at West is hyper-focused on ensuring that students at all levels of the spectrum are prepared for the wide world that lays ahead of them after exiting the district. Vocational job preparation courses, like West’s ShopWest program – in which students actively manage a supermarket – are an important facet of this. Vocational reading and math classes are also offered. There was even a production of Peter Pan in which students with special needs could act that was organized by one of West’s special education teachers, and some members of West’s DECA team with autism have won awards in the past.
“At West, we have a program that’s designed for students who…need more development of life skills or independent-living skills, or obtaining post-secondary employment, like getting jobs,” said Metzger. “They might have more needs.”
Another option that is available to West students with autism is to stay an extra year in high school before graduation. During this extra year, the student would receive additional help with job preparedness and would also focus on job placement. This way, the student would have a job lined up right out of high school, alleviating a common fear for most families that have students with autism. This option, however, is not commonly employed at Cherry Hill East.
“They have job placements or development out in the community,” said Metzger.
While there are programs for students at East with autism, the district does not have the resources to build East’s program up to the level of West without endangering the overall level of service that the district can provide. Before ninth grade, it is district policy that a meeting be held with parents of children with special needs to determine an individualized education plan (IEP) for that student throughout their high school career. During that meeting, the programs at both East and West are explained, and most of the time, parents and students choose which high school would fit best. Sometimes, however, a family may be referred to West, though they are not required to make that choice.
“Students that have more significant needs…are referred to West as part of their individualized education plan because we have the teachers and the programs and the classrooms and the students…there together because it can be very isolating if you’re the only student who has…this type of significant need and there’s not other students around you that are having those same experiences and having those same needs,” said Metzger.
The services that East offers are geared more toward higher-functioning students with autism. These services include social skills classes, speech classes, and behavioral support, but do not reach into the vocational sphere, like the services at West do. Ultimately, East’s programs
“We teach behaviors that are less noticeable so that a student is better integrated into not only the high school, but also post-secondary life,” said Metzger.
While many stark differences exist between the programs at East and West, there are some prevailing similarities. Both schools try to maximize the interaction students with autism have with their peers, for one. Additionally, both schools offer varying levels of support based on scholastic need, like in-class resource classes, self-contained classes, and resource center classes (better known as Concepts classes). In-class resource classes refer to a classroom environment where a regular-ed teacher teaches in conjunction with a special-ed teacher; self-contained classes refer to a class for students whose performance in a given subject is three or more years below their current grade level – these classes are smaller and are taught solely by a special-ed teacher. Resource center classes are also taught entirely by a special-ed teacher, but are taught more at grade level than self-contained classes. Students with autism at both East and West participate in a wide range of classes from the Honors track to self-contained classes.
“We’re proud of our programs,” said Metzger. “We’re proud of what we do.”
Programs to Supports Kids with Autism: Miracle League
Miracle League strives to make miracles come true for people living with Autism.
Arthur Aston, the founder of Miracle League, is a firm believer in the idea that “anyone, regardless of ability, can achieve their goals, when given the opportunity.”
And so, with the help of a group of student volunteers, he set out to form Miracle League, a program designed to give people with disabilities the chance to partake in America’s favorite pastime: baseball.
The league is a part of Jake’s Place – a nonprofit dedicated to building all-inclusive playgrounds where both abled and disabled children can play. The program offers both a Minor League as well as a Major League, with children as young as five years old joining in on all the fun.
To play, each participant is first assigned a student volunteer, or rather a buddy. The buddy assists the player with hitting the ball, running to the bases and protecting them in the field. But to volunteers like Hope Seybold (‘19), who has been working with Miracle League for over three years now, the program means so much more.
“To me, the most meaningful part of Miracle League is the connections I make with the players. You see them every week, so you start to become friends with them. Besides, the kids and the adults really love doing it, so seeing how happy it makes them is what really keeps me coming back for more,” said Seybold.
Seybold, along with Aliyah Anderson (‘19) currently run the Miracle League Chapter at Cherry Hill East. Prior to the start of the Spring and Fall Seasons, Seybold and Anderson organize a meeting for all interested students. This year’s spring season is set to begin on April 21st and every Saturday after that from 10:00 to 12:00, around 15 to 20 student volunteers will pair off and play baseball. On average, the minor league contains ten consistent players and the major league comprises of anywhere from 15 to 20 players.
But despite its current grandeur, the club is still relatively new. In fact, it was in the spring of 2016 that Hope Seybold, her older sister Holly Seybold (‘17) and Joe Levin (‘17) decided to bring the program to East. And the results of their hard work were a smashing success. The first meeting, alone, boasted well of 90 prospective volunteers.
Now, with the weight of the club left to Seybold and Anderson, they are more than excited to see what this upcoming season has in store.
“I always look forward to the seasons starting because Miracle League really does mean everything to me,” said Seybold. “It is so important because people with disabilities, whether it be autism or physical disabilities, don’t always have the same opportunities to play on sports teams or to even throw and hit a baseball. Miracle League is able to give them that chance.”
According to the US Census, there are about 12,000 people with disabilities in Camden County. Of the 12,000, 70 are registered to play in the league. Both Seybold and Anderson hope that the percentage will continue to grow in the coming years so that one day everyone can accomplish their dream and maybe even just hit a home run.
How you can get involved: Miracle League first meeting for the Spring Season is set to take place after school on April 13th. If you are interested in helping out, be sure to attend the meeting.
Programs to support kids with Autism: Interact Club
How the Interact Club hopes to raise awareness on ASD
Within the myriad causes East supports with its various drives and fundraisers, autism awareness has been conspicuously absent. The Interact Club, however, along with Assistant Principal Mr. Tom Storer, is endeavoring to change that.
Storer is the Vice-President and Treasurer of the Gloucester County Special Services Educational Foundation (GCSSEF), an organization which, through its funding of the Bankridge Developmental School offers multiple programs to students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their parents, for a total of over 275,000 people served in all. Storer approached the faculty adviser of the Interact Club, Mrs. Debbie Jastrow, with the idea to start an in-school fundraiser for the GCSSEF. Storer also suggested the interact club participate in the organization’s annual autism walk, which occurs in October.
The in-school fundraiser will likely occur at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, according to Storer, and will model itself on the club’s candy bar fundraiser earlier this year to support hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
“”Last year, [Interact club] had their candy sale for hurricane relief…” said Storer. “[Jastrow] thought that maybe she could run that again next year, and maybe donate a portion of that to the autism walk.”
The funds raised from the fundraiser will go to fund some of the extra-scholastic programs offered by the GCSSEF, like parent ‘Fun Friday’ nights — where parents can drop off their kids in a safe environment and go out.
“They’ll have their teachers; they’ll do their activities for two to three hours, and the parents will be able to go out to dinner, or go out and [see] a movie, and do things that they can’t normally do,” said Storer.
The organization also provides trainings for students–and parents of students–with autism.
“A lot of schools in Gloucester County don’t provide educational opportunities and services for kids with autism, sp we [rovide the extra training for them,” said Storer.
Ultimately, Storer and the Interact Club hope to create a community that is more aware of the unique needs of students with ASD while helping to raise money for programs that aid those most affected by it. So keep an eye out for Interact Club’s efforts to aid the GCSSEF next fall and beyond. )