By Robert Stoneback
The Daily Item
DANVILLE — If Tami Williams could teach people only one thing about her students, it’s how different each one is.
Williams is an autistic support teacher, employed by the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, who teaches six autistic students at Liberty Valley Intermediate School. Her students are in grades 3 through 5.
There are a lot of preconceived notions that children with autism display mostly negative qualities, she said. That, however, is not the case, and it’s something she wanted to stress during April’s Autism Awareness Month.
“They have a lot of strengths and a lot of successes,” she said. Two of her current students have just started to use sign language, when previously they never communicated in any way. The two now know 20 different signs, Williams said. Another decided to participate in their third-grade musical program for the first time while a fourth attended his first birthday party with other children.
The difference is that Williams’ classroom gives these students the social tools they lacked before, she said.
Williams, who has been an autistic support teacher for the past 16 years, enjoys working with autistic students the most because they work best in a carefully-ordered environment.
“It works well for me because it’s very structured,” she said.
Unlike regular classrooms, where one teacher generally addresses their students as a group, each student in Williams’ class gets one on one time. This can be with her or one of her two paraprofessional assistants.
Each student’s class work is tailored to them as well, with some focusing on academics while others study sign language skills.
For the two students who are non-verbal and use signing and gestures to talk, Williams and her assistants work with their families to teach them how to communicate.
Other students become very anxious in group settings and need help with social skills. In these cases, a student will be accompanied by a teacher whenever they enter a normal education classroom.
The building is extremely accepting of the autistic students, Williams said. “Their peers are great with them” as are the other teachers, she said. Her students are treated no differently than any other at Liberty Valley.
Educating the community and district personnel on autism has been a goal for Danville during April, which is Autism Awareness Month.
Among the different activities at the district for Autism Awareness Month was a “Special Awareness Night” on April 8 at the Danville Primary School. Teachers, including Williams, taught different classes on educating students with disabilities.
Being more aware of autistic needs is even more important today, as everyone is likely to encounter somebody with autism at some point in their lives, Williams said. “The numbers (of people with autism) are rising all the time.”
There is currently about a 1 in 64 chance that a child will be affected by autism, said Jill Shupp, special education director for Danville. Two years ago, that number was 1 in 84. This makes it all the more important to educate the community on the needs of these people, she said.
“In every community, we have students and adults with different disabilities. The more you educate people, the more comfortable they feel” working with them, she said.
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