Thursday, December 23, 2010

Illinois junior high students provide support for their classmate with autism

From The Marion Star in Ill.:

GREEN CAMP, Ill. -- Cataya Thornton, a behavioral technician who works with an autistic student at Elgin Junior High School, was originally seeking a few students who would be willing to interact with the student.

She started out with two in 2009. By the end of the school year, that had turned into 42. When the school opened it up to volunteers this year, more than 100 students expressed an interest.

Thirty-six students are engaged in the Peer Proximity Program, meant to help Caden Ruth (pictured) gain academic and social skills. They were chosen after the school turned it into a competition, requiring students who wanted to take part to submit an essay, and received 36 essays in response.

"We were just totally overwhelmed at how many stepped up," said Sherry Ruth, Caden's mom, who said she expected one or two students. "As a parent, I think it's fantastic."

Thornton, a North Central Ohio Educational Service Center employee who previously worked with Caden at a private school, said she did not want to keep him sheltered. She was hoping to give him a chance to interact with other students in hopes that it would not only help him but may help the other students as well.

"We were (as children) never encouraged to talk to kids with special needs, eat lunch with them," she said. Her hope was to not only get the "straight A" students but also those who may be on the ornery side or have some disabilities of their own.

"If I can get them engaged it may encourage them to have better behavior," she said.

Brianna Eaches, one of the students, said they play games with Caden and help him to socialize. They come down to his classroom during lunch or a study hall once a week.

MacKenzie Ransome, another volunteer, said she wanted to help because she had baby-sat two girls with brain diseases.

She said it has been interesting to see how Caden interacts.

The students do crafts with Caden and go to gym with him. They interact with him and help him to learn social skills.

Thornton said there are specifics that Caden needs help on such as academics, receptive and expressive language skills and behavior coping skills. He also needs help learning daily living skills such as preparing his food or washing his hands.

She said he can get overstimulated if there is too much noise, which makes it difficult for him to be in a regular classroom.

She has seen improvements such as Caden interacting with other students in the hall.

Not every day is easy. Thornton said there are days when Caden is not receptive, when he may get frustrated or act out.

"The kids are very respectful and receptive," she said.

Sherry said her hope is that her son develops friendships with other students. She said he is quite perceptive and aware of what's going on around him.

"He has all the same feelings and needs that everyone has," she said.

Thornton said that is part of what she wants the students to understand as she hopes that similar programs can be started to help other students with autism or other disabilities.