FLORENCE, S.C. — A diagnosis of Autism can be confusing for a parent, but to have an entire community that provides support, educational tools and years of experience can be an invaluable resource.
Lester Elementary is just that community.
This year alone, the school has more than 100 students that have been diagnosed with Autism or are on the Autism Spectrum. With 456 students enrolled there, students in the Autistic program make up almost 25 percent of the student body.
Autism Specialist and program coordinator Susie Bennett has been with the program since the 1990s and said she remembers a very different program than the one in place today.
“When I started, there were just two classrooms,” Bennett said. “Today, we have ten self-contained classrooms.”
A self-contained classroom is designed specifically for students with special needs. In the case of children with Autism, some have behavior challenges while others have communication problems. In a self-contained class the number of students can vary allowing teachers to give more individualized attention.
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In the forty years that the program has been in Florence (it was at another school initially) the resources for Autistic students have also grown exponentially. Aside from the additional classrooms, there are also occupational therapy, applied behavior therapy, physical therapy and resource programs available.
One of the tools that teachers use when teaching Autistic students, who are often very visual learners, is PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). The method assigns a picture to objects or actions, and allows students who are not verbal to express their needs while also allowing teachers to enforce classroom rules.
5K teacher Rajitha Kondragunta explained that instead of having to repeat a request multiple times, using a PECS card enforces what the teacher is asking in a way that students understand.
“We have cards that say words like quiet and sit down,” Kondragunta said. “All I have to do is point at the card. For instance, one student likes his backpack in a certain spot. If he is not listening, all we have to do is point at the picture of a backpack and he understands that we are going to move his backpack if he does not do what he needs to do.”
PECS is universal and makes transitions for non-verbal students much easier.
While self-containment is sometimes necessary, the goal is to have students mainstreamed into regular classrooms as much as possible. Therefore, if a student is good at math and can function in a mainstream classroom for the math period they will place the child there for that time.
Bennett said that it’s important for typically developing children to have exposure to children with different abilities. It is beneficial to both students, Bennett said, allowing them to have an understanding of people who are different than themselves.
Parents have taken notice of the work being done at Lester. One mother who had moved away from Florence returned shortly after leaving so that her child could continue at Lester. Today she is an assistant teacher within the Autism program because she wants to help other parents.
“I moved to North Carolina to be closer to family,” Tracy Cook said. “Within four months we were back. I went to school one day and he was in the corner; they put him there because they didn’t know what else to do with him. At Lester, they are so patient and helpful. He wasn’t potty-trained until he was 9 ½. They helped me and kept encouraging me.”
Bennett said that she is proud of the work done at Lester and is proud of the changes she sees each year in students.
“The biggest misconception about Autism is that it is a one size fits all diagnosis,” Bennett said. “We have 108 students in this program and every single one of them is different.”
To help students as they continue their education beyond Lester, there is an autistic classroom available at Williams Middle School and two at Wilson High School.