FALCONER - When Falconer turns blue Monday, April 2, the community will gather to raise awareness on a disorder that affects tens of millions.
The village will partake in the third annual Light It Up Blue event on World Autism Awareness Day, and support from the county hasn't been difficult to find.
Within the village, creating a friendly environment for children with autism begins early on and lasts through graduation, according to a few Falconer Central School employees.
Seth Carr, a student in Alynn Conlan’s Temple Elementary class, uses the iPad app Dexteria to increase fine motor coordination.
Julian Gordon, another student in Conlan’s class, uses Dexteria to improve his grasp of a writing utensil.
In total, the district has roughly 140 special education students from kindergartners through 21-year-olds. By using an inclusion model, children with disabilities learn alongside and follow the leads of regular education students, which can be beneficial. They find role models in class, according to Julie Possai, the district's special education director. Although some students do spend time in self-contained classrooms, the district tries to move them into a general education setting as soon as possible.
"The inclusion model is critical," she said. "They're a part of our community. They're just viewed as one of the kids in the class. It normalizes what we perceive as being different or odd. Falconer is generally a very friendly environment. It's not a big deal. There doesn't appear to be a stigma."
Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization, cites a 600 percent increase in children with autism in the past 20 years. Today, one in 110 children have autism. To assist the growing number of children with learning disabilities, Falconer has focused on bringing technology into its classrooms and keeping students within their home district.
"We have to find some way to make these kids a part of our world," said Amy Smith, classroom aide in Temple Elementary's special education room. "If we didn't have schools like Falconer, these kids would be leaving to live in group homes and not be productive. Our goal is to make these kids productive in this world."
Andy Ohl, the district's assistive technology coordinator, remembers flipping through his high-school yearbook and seeing faces of classmates he never met. They attended classes in isolated rooms and never interacted with Ohl and his regular education classmates. Today, the special education children not only learn with and from regular education students, they have gadgets and applications that help them along.
"Our kids here are totally integrated in the classroom," he said. "They go to a regular education gym class, or a music class or they go as a group to the library. It's all individualized based on each child and how they would benefit most."
Ohl believes schools have struggled with finding appropriate content for students with disabilities for years. In the past, a device providing non-verbal students with a voice cost around $10,000, he said. Today, through the use of iPods and iPads, the district can purchase an application called "Proloquo2go" for $189 that handles similar tasks as more expensive augmentative communication devices.
"By being able to purchase the iPad, we've added a number of different things that we weren't able to on those dedicated devices," Ohl said. "They provide them with their voice. It allows them to speak using symbols. The device does the speaking for them. We can add on the fly. The device has a camera built into it. Every new thing that they encounter within the classroom or in the community, the teacher or the aide can take a picture of that and add that right to their vocabulary."
The iPads, new additions to the district, allow the staff to purchase student-specific content for children of all ability levels. The devices address the behavioral component of autism through video screen modeling that shows each scenario the students will encounter throughout the day. By showing children with autism positive behaviors, transitions from one room or task to the next become less difficult, according to Ohl.
"When they transition to the lunch room, if they're not aware of what's going on in the next two minutes, you have the potential for a breakdown in behavior," he said. "By having that behavior from the day before or the week before modeled on a video screen on the iPad and presented to them, they watch the proper way to walk in the hall, and they're more able to regulate their system as far as what's coming next."
In the past, teachers and aides relied on picture schedules to show children what would come next. The district has also made a writing program with a phonetic spell checker and teacher-created podcast study guides available for third- through 12th-grade students, allowing them access to the technology 24 hours per day.
"There are so many apps for children who have communication issues," Possai said. "For older children who struggle academically, we run out of tools in the tool box sometimes. It's another avenue."
Through the inclusion model and the use of technology, Ohl believes disabilities have become more socially acceptable and understood. Not only do special-education students take classes with regular-education children, they no longer need a teacher or an aide to sit with them during examinations thanks to the iPod. Teachers can podcast examinations and store them on the devices prior to exams, allowing students with reading disabilities to hear the questions read out loud without having to leave the classroom.
"The iPod and iPad are socially appropriate as opposed to these big, bulky pieces these kids would have to carry around to communicate or sitting in a room by themselves," Ohl said. "It kind of takes the stigma of a child having a learning disability away."
The technologies used by the district assist students with mild and profound disabilities in hopes of helping them graduate. In order to make that happen, the students must pass Regents examinations. Those who have grown accustomed to the various learning-enhancing technologies may use them on those exams, according to Ohl.
"It levels the playing field for students who typically wouldn't be able to read a test or even answer an essay question in a manner where they would get credit," he said. "If you can't read the test, you'll never pass. I can't judge your level of knowledge of the content. Through these accommodations, now we can find out if this child knows Earth science or biology. It's really beneficial, and a lot of our students are taking advantage of it."
The district not only focuses on helping children graduate, Falconer hopes to lead children with disabilities down paths that will help them find jobs after they leave. Special education students work in the school's cafeteria or handle groundskeeping duties while enrolled at Falconer, allowing them to experience fields they find interesting.
"When they graduate, our goal is to have those kids work those jobs that they want to work," Ohl said. "They can only do that if they build skills all along the way."
EDUCATING THE COMMUNITY
Falconer Central may have helped reduce the stigma around autism and learning disabilities within its three schools. However, Cathy Barber, an organizer of the Light It Up Blue event, believes county residents have more to learn.
Her son, Jacob, has autism. The 5-year-old attends Chautauqua Lake school, but cannot speak.
"He's starting to, but it's been a long road," she said, noting the importance of admitting there is a problem and getting a child who potentially has autism help early. "There's nothing around here for anyone with a child with autism. You have to go to Buffalo or Erie. People don't realize. People need to teach their kids about it. They look at Jacob and wonder why he's doing the things that he does when we take him out because I refuse to keep him sheltered. It's especially important for the kids. Some of the kids do have interactions with kids such as Jacob, and they do fantastic with it."
Smith's son, Jase, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome four years ago. At age 2, he couldn't speak. Smith had seen the negative side of educating children with autism. She saw kids throw tantrums when they didn't have the ability to say what they wanted.
"There was no way that was going to be my kid," she said, "so we really pushed and got Jase to function in our world. He never shuts up anymore. What we need is for these kids to be better understood, and they need these things that Andy (Ohl) and the technology department are coming up with. If they can't tell us what they need, we're in real trouble. If they melt down, kick and scream on the floor, it's not getting anybody anywhere."
With technology and a reduction in the stigma surrounding the disorder, Smith believes autistic kids are better off today than they were in the past. With a successful event April 2, that stigma could be further reduced.
"We've had a huge response to this," Smith said. "I didn't expect it to be this big. We wanted people to wear blue T-shirts on April 2, and it's turned into this big thing. I'm ecstatic about it."
The event will be held from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in Falconer, beginning at Davis Park. There will be prize drawings, games, a DJ and blue glow sticks donated by Pepsi. Falconer's first responders will display their blue lights. Community members are encouraged to attend and wear blue.
Barber has worked with Jamestown area businesses, asking them to hang blue lights outside in hopes of raising autism awareness. Several businesses have agreed to hang lights throughout April, Autism Awareness Month, and to organize Wear Blue Day on April 2.
"People are more than happy and willing to put the lights up," Barber said, noting some business owners have asked for informational posters to hang as well. "The community has been really receptive."