Autism continues to be one of the fastest growing disorders impacting children today, as recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control now estimate as many as 1 in 50 children will be diagnosed with autism.
In an effort to provide education and raise awareness about the disorder, Mary Crissman, senior autism consultant/trainer for the Little Friends Center for Autism, offered a free community presentation recently at the Madden Theatre in North Central College’s Wentz Hall, featuring a presentation “A Walk in My Autism” based on the book written by Nan Negri and Kate McGinnity entitled, “Walk Awhile in My Autism.”
Kim Bus, director of marketing and community relations at Little Friends, said the autism training “is one of the more popular events we do” and that it is intended to provide “a glimpse into what folks with autism might be feeling, sensing, and seeing if they are part of the spectrum.”
“A lot of people aren’t aware of the symptoms and knowledge is critical in that it helps in terms of receiving therapy early, which leads to a better outcome,” Bus said.
Crissman, who has worked in the field since the early 1980s and specializes in providing training to children with autism and their parents, said the workshop was primarily designed for parents, extended family members, teachers and aides who might be looking for clues to help diagnose others, but also for “neighbors, siblings, and friends who might want to help someone with autism and not know how.”
“There are challenges for people with autism, certainly, but there are also strengths,” Crissman insisted. “People with autism often have strong memories, excellent gross or fine motor skills, and they can be very endearing and want to fit in but often they don’t know how. Some of them have language skills and some of them don’t. The whole idea of the workshop is for people to see what their lives are like.”
A crowd of about 60 people gathered in the auditorium by 6 p.m. for what Crissman said would be about a two-hour workshop. She offered a number of challenges or exercises that involved audience participation. Games like “Simon Says” were used to show how those who are autistic might not be able to move on to the next activity. Other exercises included “over” or “under” helping people complete various tasks, trying to guess the next letter in a sequence and playing the old “telephone game” where maybe 10 people share a verbal message one at a time with one another to see how corrupted the message is by the time it is repeated by the last person.
“The idea is to provide visual cues for people with autism because it helps them remember things better than just with auditory cues,” Crissman said.
Those attending the workshop said they were hoping to learn more about autism for a variety of reasons, ranging from educational purposes to working in a new program offered through the Naperville Police Department.
Linda Mullins, a teacher at Kingsley Elementary School here in Naperville, said that as a reading specialist, she wanted to learn more about helping some of her students.
“We have students with autism in our program, and I want to learn more about them,” Mullins said. “I heard about the program through a flyer I saw and I wanted to attend.”
Mullins’ colleague Sandy Eckhardt, who also teaches reading at Kingsley, said there “appear to be more students with autism at the school” and that learning about the causes of the condition would be important.
“We all want to help them learn better so knowing more about the causes may be a way to help them do that,” she said.
Naperville resident Mark Brindle said he attends North Central College and was attending the workshop as part of a requirement for an education class. .
“I’m going to become a teacher eventually and I’m interested in learning about something new,” he said. “I haven’t had any direct contact with someone with autism, but I am still interested in learning more about it.”
Debbie Hansen of Naperville said she works as a civilian with the Naperville Police Department in a new initiative known as the Fastrack program, which uses electronic technology to locate missing persons. Many with autism, she said, wear bracelets.
“Many of these kids tend to wander and I want to learn how best to deal with them,” Hansen said. “Some of the autistic kids can be a challenge and this is a great opportunity to learn more about them.”