Odessa Elementary School prekindergarteners Chase Henry and Magnus Negron lay flat on the floor, legs up, arms splayed, visibly upset that they had to leave music time to do something new. Teachers Kala Hamilton and Kim Ogden were prepared for the reaction. Children with autism often get distressed when changing their routine, and the educators knew they had to get the boys to refocus on something else they enjoy. Thank goodness for computers.
The youngsters love to work on the programs their school has to teach letter sounds and basic words. To get to use the laptops, though, Chase and Magnus had to use symbols and pictures to say "I want computer."
"These guys are learning about the intent to communicate with pictures," behavior specialist Sue Beane said as she watched the teachers interact with the boys. "The point of this is not just to communicate, but also to interact with another person. … That is key."
Eventually, Ogden said, the students will progress to a point where they use more picture cards to say different things. They also will move to other, more advanced forms of communication or technology to help them interact with others — perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome for people with autism.
Such technology does not come cheaply, though. So Odessa Elementary is holding its seventh annual Autism Awareness Walk on April 9 to raise awareness and money to support equipment needs. (New River Elementary in Wesley Chapel held a similar event Saturday.)
"Technology is beautiful," Hamilton said, as she watched the boys practice asking for the computer and then using it to learn.
Primary teacher Kristy LePage and intermediate teacher Connie Mohrmann agreed that schools must use a variety of modern methods to discover children's best way to learn and express themselves.
Using reading software during circle time, LePage captured the attention of kindergartener Mason Christian, who stared at the screen and offered up answers to questions about how to complete words based on pictures.
The letters "-an" showed up, then a picture of a pan. Mason walked up to the screen, pointed at the letter p, made a "p" sound and said "pan." Then he'd excitedly do the next one, knowing exactly how and where to point and click.
"We grow upon this using communication to learn and do more effective academics," LePage said.
In Mohrmann's classroom across the hall, fourth-grader Jack Rausch could not speak words, so he used a machine where he could point at words with pictures to complete sentences. It helped Mohrmann to know that Jack can understand, and that sometimes his outbursts come out of frustration that he can't fully express what he knows.
"Technology is coming fast and furious," she said. "We want to at least expose them to the different tools so when we do have all the applications they'll be ready."
Parents say they're thrilled with the results they've seen in their children since entering Odessa's autism unit.
"They're great teachers. They're very patient. He definitely takes a village," Jenna Henry said of her son, Chase. "I see the leaps and bounds he's made this year."
Teachers helped her family discover the use of pictures to make sentences. Since then, Chase's behavior problems have declined dramatically, said Henry, also a teacher at Odessa Elementary.
The technology also has helped, she added.
"He's definitely very much a sensory child. He likes that stimulation," said Henry, who lives in Hernando County but chose to bring him to Pasco for its reputation in educating children with autism. "I think the technology grabs his interest. As they get older there are lots of things that come out there. It's the wave of the future."
Jennifer Christian said her son, Mason, has made great academic strides.
"When I started with Mason in kindergarten there, he wasn't reading," she said. "They have this series they work with. When he came home with Book No. 1 and you could see the pride in his face that he was going to read it to me, it brought tears to my eyes."
Christian praised the school's focus on providing all the needed equipment and tools for children with autism to grow.
"They have done everything that they can," she said. "I am getting the best that is available to me. And I think it is wonderful."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.