Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Shell of autism cracks

In Lakota: Kids have communication problems; Special club, camp teach social skills

By Sara Thomas
Enquirer contributor

11 year old Stephen Arnott stands on a chair as he carefully places a little ladder on top of a 6 foot tall tower he built with boxes and cans during Camp Talk-More activities at Freedom Elementary in West Chester.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
WEST CHESTER TWP. - It looks like a typical video game marathon. Adolescents stare intently at televisions, and the action on the "Dance Dance Revolution" mats causes mini-earthquakes from the corner of the room.

But soon it becomes obvious that Club Connect is more than just a teen hangout. This is a place established by the Lakota Local School District to help junior high and high school students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder to develop the social skills that they often lack.

And it's working.

"Look at him now," said Mary Kohlas of West Chester, pointing at her son Johnathan as he played a video game. "He's enjoying himself. This is a different kid, and it's from this place."

Autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger syndrome, affect as many as three of every 1,000 children, according to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Autism and related disorders pose significant challenges for schools because the children suffer communication difficulties, struggle with social relationships, have unusually intense interests or fixations, and can be resistant to change.

Lakota is using a $50,000 federal grant to offer special programs to families of children with autism.

Lakota also offers Camp Talk-More, a four-week summer camp for autistic students in grades 1-6. For two hours every weekday morning, students can play with just about anything - from building with PVC pipes, to hula-hooping, to blowing bubbles or playing board games.

The only requirements are that they "find a friend" to play with, and talk while they're doing it.

Gail Cox, a West Chester mother of two, says her daughter Shannon has benefited from being a counselor at Camp Talk-More. Shannon , a Lakota freshman, was diagnosed with autism when she was 3. Social interaction has been her biggest challenge.

"She's imitating the other counselors. That's great for her to have the other counselors as role models," said Cox. Being a counselor "does wonders for her self-esteem. I've really seen her bloom in the past year and I think the time at Camp Talk-More is just a wonderful tool to help reinforce it."

Camp director Kim Singleton-Filio, who will be the autism consultant for Lakota next year, helped write the proposal for the grant.

Although the ages and environments are different, Singleton-Filio cites a common goal.

"Both groups of people need to be inspired to talk and to connect," she said. "If you have a kid with autism and you provide them with these supports, you're setting them up for success."

Singleton-Filio stressed that "there are lots of different ways to look at the treatment of autism." Camp Talk-More focuses on social skills rather than academics, and she thinks a combination of approaches is the best idea.

Vicki Curtis, director of Special Services for Lakota, said the Lakota approach to special education differs from some other districts. She said Singleton-Filio's job next year will be to help bring services to kids with autism, and the district is continually getting better at providing more options.

Autism help

If you think your child may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, contact:

• your child's pediatrician

• the Kelly O'Leary Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

• your child's speech-language pathologist

Helpful Web sites




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