There are 22 autistic students at Glenn Dale Elementary School, but in the classroom and on the playground, you often can’t tell who they are.
“Kids are the most compassionate people,” said Laura Carr, the coordinator of the school’s autism program. “It’s crazy to see the kids play together.”
Glenn Dale is one of seven schools in the Prince George’s County school system that runs specialized programs for students with autism that include children in general education classrooms while offering additional support in self-contained classrooms.
Kindergarten students start in a classroom with no more than seven autistic children, and as students become academically and socially ready, they spend a few hours each day in a general education classroom with the support of a special education teacher and paraprofessionals, Carr said.
“We do our best to make sure they have every opportunity to be fully included and get the full school experience,” she said.
Autism affects one in 110 children and is 4.5 times more common in boys than girls, said Amanda Glensky, a media specialist with the Autism Society.
People with autism show slowed speech development, repetitive motor mannerisms such as hand flapping or jumping, and social skills deficit, said Glensky, noting that April marks Autism Awareness Month.
Fourth-grader Finnian Sheerin of New Carrollton has been taught solely in Glenn Dale’s general education classrooms for the past two years, said his mother, Erin Sheerin.
“He has just flourished,” Sheerin said. “It’s given him more confidence, he likes school now, and he’s made more friends.”
Finnian’s not alone.
Since Glenn Dale shifted in 2005 from only self-contained classrooms for students with autism to its integrated autism program, students have made extensive progress in learning social skills, Carr said.
“Socially, the kids excelled,” said Carr, who took her first teaching job at the school in 2006. “What the peers were doing was teaching them things we couldn’t.”
Integrating students with special needs with the general student population gives autistic children more opportunities to form friendships and become comfortable around their peers, said Kate Moraff, the school psychologist.
“By including (students with autism), our neuro-typical kids are learning there are all kinds of people in the world, and everyone’s unique,” Moraff said. “They’re getting used to one another.”
The program has made the Glenn Dale staff more conscious of differentiating instruction and has fostered a sensitivity among general education students to the diverse needs of their peers, said Principal Lia Thompson.
“We’re building a generation of students who are more accommodating of everyone’s uniqueness,” she said.
Some general education students who are especially accommodating and helpful will join the 22 students in the autism program on their annual overnight camping trip to Camp Pecometh in Centreville, Md., next month, Carr said.
“To see these kids with social disorders sitting around a campfire is amazing,” Carr said.
And even though Finnian fell in the river last year, he said he can’t wait for this year’s trip.