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Autism a rising concern for teachers, familiescomment (0)

August 26, 2004

By Anthony Wade

Sunday School teachers face a variety of special needs among their students, but increasingly they face autism spectrum disorders (ASDs or autism), the fastest-growing developmental disability in America.

There are 1 to 1.5 million Americans with autism, according to the Autism Society of America (ADA). While the U.S. population grew at 13 percent in the 1990s, disabilities increased at a rate of 16 percent. But outdistancing both by a large margin was autism with a growth rate of 172 percent during that decade, according to ASA.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that precisely what causes autism is unknown, but scientists think both genetic and environmental factors could play a role in it.

“There is no known cure for ASDs. However, early and intensive education can help children grow and learn new skills,” the CDC stated.

“Medicines can relieve symptoms and be helpful for some people, but structured teaching of skills (often called behavioral intervention) is currently the most effective treatment,” the organization said.

The sights, sounds and smells of the environment of the room can be conducive to learning and inspiration, or it can be a major hindrance, according to Sherron Culpepper, special needs Sunday School consultant for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. She said careful observation of a child’s behavior can provide clues to the power of these factors.

But it also takes understanding these external factors and learning to read cues from the children themselves, said Marty Pike, a special needs teacher at Westwood Baptist Church, Alabaster, in Shelby Association. He said he learns a lot from his students by reading their eyes.

“The way I do it is to look at their eyes —­ I can see stress, happiness, love, calmness, anxiety —­ I can tell whether they like something or not,” he said.

Using their eyes for seeing words on the printed page can be a plus for children with autism, experts say. Workers can help children by giving them things in writing or by having written schedules posted on the wall, Culpepper said. “The less you stray from a routine the child is familiar with the better.”

Culpepper also suggested that teachers try to include aerobic activity in Sunday School to offer children an understandable transition between activities.

Sometimes reverse mainstreaming can work for autistic children.

This means having the child alone, then bringing in one or two other students, rather than the autistic child going into their class.

Social situations, such as those found in Sunday School, are usually difficult for children with autism.

This is because autistic children may not interact with other people the way most people do, or they may not be interested in other people at all, according to the CDC.

Speech communication may be limited or nonexistent with autistic children, which further isolates them from mainstream social situations, according to JoAnn Collier, director of preschool ministry at Whitesburg Baptist Church, Huntsville.

“Autism is not being retarded mentally,” she explained. “A lot of them just can’t verbalize what they are thinking or feeling.”

She suggests keeping them on a routine every Sunday, even down to which door they use to enter the building.

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