May 7, 2007
Section: B
Page: 1A

Autism awareness promoted
BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD
Courier-Post

Courier-Post Staff CHERRY HILL

Students at Woodcrest Elementary School recently watched a video created with love and concern by Christy Carlson and Debbie Schmidt, parents of autistic children.

They not only watched. Some students participated in the production while others played an interactive role following each screening.

As a result, students got insight into what it's like to have the neurological disorder with no known cure -- a perception that could make them and their families more likely to join a local walk to raise money for autism research in June.

To prepare for the upcoming Walk Now for Autism, Carlson and Schmidt decided to get the whole school involved with their video.

Thirteen fifth-graders at Woodcrest participated in the video, which took several weeks to prepare. About seven minutes long, it was narrated by Schmidt's son Jordan, 11. The Woodcrest fifth-grader has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

Jordan is a successful student in his inclusion classroom at Woodcrest, where he learns side by side with typically developing students, including Carlson's 11-year-old daughter, Katie, 11, who helped make the video.

"I enjoyed doing it. It's fun to teach other people about autism so they can be more understanding and don't stare," Katie said. Her brother, Erik, 6, also has autism. He is taught in a self-contained classroom at Cooper Elementary School .

At the end of April, which is Autism Awareness Month, Carlson and Schmidt showed the video to every grade level at the school, tailoring subsequent discussion for each age group.

For kindergarten children, Schmidt and Carlson relied on the video and a few examples to explain the disorder. For the older youngsters, the moms tried role-playing to get them to see life from a different perspective -- the perspective of one of their autistic classmates who might be coping with heightened senses, difficulty with social skills and communication, and perseveration -- the tendency to obsess on a particular subject.

Students were surrounded by loud sounds of drilling, airplanes and cars, chirping birds, sirens, barking, crying, even elevator music annoying to most people but intolerable for many with autism.  They got nervous when someone tried crowding them, but learned that people with autism might not understand the concept of "personal space" that most take for granted.

They were asked to react to the idea of getting a computer game versus getting a sweater knitted by a great aunt.  "Your faces tell a story. But if someone has autism, you can't tell the story behind their faces," Carlson said.

Students learned there are different levels of autism. People with Asperger's, such as Jordan , often are repetitious when they converse.  Like many autism sufferers, Jordan has a high pain threshold. When he broke his pinkie finger many years ago, it took hours for anyone to notice because Jordan didn't complain. His mother said Jordan can pull out his baby teeth before they are ready to fall out without feeling anything.

"It's the wiring that's a little different. But I just knew Jordan could do so many things that were amazing," his mother said.

The goal was to raise awareness and empathy. "Sometimes it takes a little more patience to be friends with someone with autism. But autism is a big-time thing and there's no medicine to treat it," Schmidt said.

By asking questions they may have previously felt embarrassed to raise, Woodcrest students learned although autism was "discovered" in the 1940s, it has probably existed far longer.  "Nobody knew what it was. But from what we know about people's behavior in the past, we can guess that they had autism," Carlson said.  

Among the likely candidates are Thomas Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Bill Gates.

It isn't just famous autistic people who have special talents, Schmidt said.

"People with autism are very special. Just because they think a little differently doesn't make them right or wrong," she explained.

Four out of five autistic people are male. Although its cause is unknown, autism is recognized as the fastest growing serious developmental disorder in the United States , with government statistics suggesting a growth rate of 10 percent to 17 percent each year.

Despite the increase, it remains one of the least-funded disorders in the nation. Out of the National Institute of Health's 2005 $29 billion budget, only $100 million went to autism research.  

Schmidt explained that genetics can play a role in determining who has autism -- Todd Schmidt, Jordan 's father, realized at 32 that as a child he experienced many of the same challenges his son now has, and Erik's maternal grandfather believes he, too, is exhibiting symptoms.

But the environment also is seen increasingly as a factor. Schmidt said today one in 150 American children is autistic, but the figure was one in 10,000 when Jordan was diagnosed eight years ago.

"It's not contagious, so you can't catch it from anyone," Jordan noted.

Students wanted to know how they could make friends with autistic children who don't talk much.  "You have to be really patient," Carlson said.  Woodcrest students who didn't know Jordan and others with autism well before seeing the video and participating in the program came away with new understanding.

"I learned that most people are not always perfect, and you shouldn't judge people for the way they are," fifth-grader Kadejra Grayson-Groom, 10, said.  Added Amanda Lewis, 10, another fifth-grade student, "They can't do some stuff, but they've replaced what they can't do with something no one else can do."  Fifth-grader Lydia Huber, 11, agreed.  "They have different abilities. They're different, but they're still people," she said.

Said Schmidt, "What we've done here is create a bubble of awareness. When we spoke to the fourth-graders, one of them got up and said, "Yes, I have autism.' This is a testament to what this program has done."

Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or brothschild@courierpostonline.com

Return to Just 2 Mom's Press Page