Autism Awareness Month brings attention to how schools treat students with ASD

By Cole Pirwitz, ‘16 and Olivia Van Arsdale, ‘17

UAHS senior Jacob Zheng sits patiently at a table outside the attendance office, surrounded by stacks of papers, colorful pins, bracelets, and candy. Groups of people tentatively approach him, take his surveys, and walk away with the product of their choice – many leave with small blue bracelets that declare “Autism Awareness” in all-caps white lettering on their wrists.

Zheng has dedicated his senior capstone project to raising awareness and support for people like him who live with autism.

His capstone involves gathering data through surveying students at UAHS and compiling it to see how informed the student body is about autism.

“[The surveys] asked if you know a person with autism, and if you meet a person with autism, are you willing to talk with them and hang out with them,” Zheng said. “My research paper is on autism awareness, what autism is, the science of making friends and how people can help others with autism.”

April is Autism Awareness Month and across the nation, schools and businesses are pinning up ribbons emblazoned with multicolored puzzle pieces in solidarity with these individuals.

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Understanding Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are among the most common developmental disorders in America and are colloquially referred to just as ‘autism.’ Autism Spectrum Disorders are brain-based and affect behavior as well as social and communication skills.

Despite being one of the most common disorders in America, affecting on average one in 68 people according to the Center for Disease Control, autism is enigmatic to researchers. There is no single known cause of autism, but scientists suspect a genetic influence. However, no two people with autism present the exact same symptoms, so researchers have very few common denominators to help them better understand the disorder.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.16.45 AMWhat is known is that the most typical symptoms involve difficulty communicating and oversensitivity to stimuli, such as sound and light. They also may have difficulty expressing themselves.

However, this variation in symptoms greatly affects how teachers work in a classroom with students who have autism.

“You have to be really informed about that student specifically, because students with autism are all different and they all have their own things that bother them and things that work for them and different interests,” Kelli Axner, who teaches Algebra II for special needs students, said. “For example, some don’t like when the lights are too bright, and many don’t like loud noises. You have to really get to know those students.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.16.56 AMAxner also said that this type of teaching is often more personal than others, requiring much more interpersonal connection than a general education classroom.

“It’s a very intense and direct type of instruction that they need. More so with students with autism, it’s guiding them through the instruction,” Axner said.

Like any other student, those with autism thrive when introduced to subjects they find interesting. For example, Zheng likes digital media classes.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.17.26 AM“My overall favorite class was Desktop Design in my sophomore year of high school,” Zheng said. “Another class I like is one I take at Columbus Downtown High School about Interactive Media.”

Zheng, who is in all general education classes, is an example of what the special education teachers are working towards for all their students.

“Our ultimate goal is to get these students into the general education classes,” Axner said. “So if a student is performing really well, our goal is to hopefully work them into the general education classroom, just with some accommodations and modifications.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.17.58 AMIncreasingly, accommodations are becoming more available every year, both in the classroom and for standardized testing.

“Every year it seems like more and more modifications are being approved, which is great,” Axner said. “So for the ACT and SAT, these students are able to apply to get accommodations.”

Some examples of modifications would be extended time, text to speech, or calculation devices on non-calculator portions.

With such a unique condition, learning is just as unique, according to UA Director of Student Services Dr. Kevin Gorman.

“If you have seen one person with autism, you’ve seen only one person with autism, because autism presents differently in every single person. So you really have to think outside of the box sometimes to come up with a program that is going to work for that child,” Gorman said.

In Seclusion

A topic that has come under fire recently in relation to students with autism is that of seclusion rooms.

Seclusion rooms are a way of handling a student when they are having behavioral issues and are used in schools across America. When a student is behaving badly, they can be placed in a seclusion room by themselves.

According to National Public Radio, seclusion rooms are being used across America and were recorded as being used over 104,000 times in the 2014 school year.

In the case of students with autism, seclusion rooms can be a place to regroup and regain control of their emotions.

“With an autistic person, if there’s a lot going on around them, it can make the outbreak worse. So by having the seclusion room, it becomes their safe place,” Axner said.

While many, like Axner, defend the usage of seclusion rooms, they sometimes result in mishaps. During the 2014-2015 school year, the Ohio Board of Education reported a total of over 410 injuries to students as a result of seclusion and restraints, and 777 injuries to school staff.

However, in UA, special education teachers work hard to make sure things like this don’t happen.

“If you’re leaving [students] in there for a long period of time without supervision, so if they start hurting themselves there’s no one to stop them, or if you’re in the room with them and inappropriately restraining them, that would be an example of misusing the seclusion room,” Axner said. “I think that part of what you do should be teach them to use the seclusion room beforehand, so they know what it’s for and they know how to use it, and set the rules first, like you get three minutes to cool off.”

The Ohio Board of Education adopted a rule in 2013 that forbids restraint and seclusion except under imminent threat of physical harm, but a recent report from Disability Rights Ohio has said that there is a lack of accountability and oversight to enforce this rule and make sure that learning disabled students are being treated humanely with seclusion rooms.

“[The Ohio Board of Education] has no system for monitoring schools for compliance of the rule, inadequate reporting and notification of incidents, insufficient recourse for parents and students when the rule has been violated, and no coordinated effort among agencies to thoroughly investigate incidents,” the report, published this past February, stated.

With no system in place to monitor the use of seclusion rooms and restraints, schools are essentially on the honor system, and any misuses of seclusion rooms and restraints may fail to be reported.

Overall, there is still much controversy and disagreement over the question of if seclusion rooms should be allowed at all, or if they should be outright banned and punishable by law.

Slow Going

Recently, Upper Arlington City Schools received its report card from the Ohio Department of Education. Though they received an A in progress for special education, Gorman said, “we [still] have a lot of work to do.”

Gorman elaborated on his past experiences to show the patience required to change a social culture.

“I’m a retired high school principal from Sylvania Northview in Northwest Ohio, I was there for nine years,” Gorman said, speaking on how the social aspect of change, “It took me nine years to change the culture of that building, so it’s a slow process because schools are just different.”

However, because autism is not widely understood, understanding people with autism can be difficult for neurotypical people.

“If you haven’t been around somebody with special needs or you aren’t educated as why certain things happen, it’s hard for kids to understand,” Goman explained. “And different is scary for somebody that doesn’t understand it.”

This can make progress difficult to achieve, even with campaigns such as Autism Awareness Month and Spread the Word to End the Word.

Zheng believes that the school should make more of an effort to integrate students with autism socially.

“I feel like Upper Arlington is more suited to [neurotypical] kids, not for people with special needs or who have autism or who have trouble expressing his or her thoughts,” Zheng said. “I think this school should have a program to help students with autism feel more suited to this school [socially].”

Both Axner and Gorman believe that students at UAHS need to take more responsibility towards being inclusive to students with autism.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 8.24.58 AM“I think that there’s definitely room for improvement. Students with autism struggle with social interaction, so it’s a lot harder for other students to want to approach them, because they don’t necessarily know how to hold an appropriate conversation,” Axner said. “The more high school kids can learn about autism, the better. These kids want the inclusion and want the social interaction, so educating ourselves more about the disability would help a lot. It’s not all there yet.”

UAHS senior Aidan Gipe, who has a sibling with autism, said that he thinks the school is improving its social attitude towards students with autism.

“I think before the ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign there was a problem with people using the word “R-word” but now I’m not seeing as much of a problem,” Gipe said.

Gorman thinks that the overall attitude towards special education students needs to change to be more inclusive and open towards students with learning disabilities.

“I think the goal should be that we don’t look at them as special education kids, but instead as Upper Arlington students,” Gorman said. “That’s a cultural change, which is going to take some time.”