Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Utah college class organizes event for families who have children with autism

From the Salt Lake Tribune:

Chad Millner's autistic son, Gareth, (pictured) can be a handful, making it difficult for the West Jordan dad to get out much with the kids, especially without the help of his wife.

But on May 23, Millner strolled through Tanner Plaza at Westminster College as Gareth, 5, and his twin sister, who is not autistic, remained occupied by students coordinating an array of activities at a free event for families affected by autism.

"A lot of people don't realize how difficult it is to take an autistic child places," Millner said. "Something like this is so nice because both of them are having fun and I'm not all stressed out."

Science has yet to discover the cause of autism, which can lead to unusual or repetitive behavior, problems communicating and difficulty with social interactions.

The event was organized by students in a Westminster class titled "Autism: Awareness or Epidemic" and featured activities such as art projects and face painting designed to appeal to autistic children as well as siblings who are not. A selection of snacks and drinks were available for children with and without dietary restrictions. (Many parents have autistic children on special diets thought to ease their symptoms.)

Students, who during the class learned a wide range of information about the disorder, actively engaged all the children as they participated in various activities.

Shamby Polychronis, Westminster assistant professor of education, said
the event, in its second year, was the students' final project. "This incorporates everything they've learned," she said.

Safia Keller's son, Maclane, 14, who is autistic, moved from one activity to the next, flashing not only a big smile, but his encyclopedic knowledge of science-related topics such as tree frogs.

Like Millner, Keller said she was comforted by the fact that no one would stare or even gawk at her child's behavior. "It's neat to have events like this, where families can go and feel accepted," she said.

Keller said it wasn't until age 2 that Maclane started showing symptoms of autism. "We had this little boy who knew his alphabet, his numbers, his colors, who was happy. Then he lost it all."

Other parents at the event recounted similar stories, and talked of the balancing act of caring for an autistic child and siblings without the disorder.

Like many families at the event, Melissa Lawrence, of Magna, must divide her attention among a child with autism and others who aren't. She has 6-year-old twins -- Brady, who isn't autistic, and Brock, who is. She also has a 19-month-old who is not autistic.

"This is the ideal place to take them," she said, as the twins worked on a coloring activity with Westminster students.

Student Sean Markey, who will graduate in December with an education degree from Westminster, took the class because his minor was in special education and he wanted to learn more about autism.

He learned a lot in the class and enjoyed the discussions on the aspects of autism that science still has no answers for, he said. "It was a great way to add to what we've already learned in the program," he said.