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Shoreham students experience autism for a day
Fourth-grader Nick Donnelly counted along with the rest of his classmates seated around the small cafeteria table at Miller Avenue School in Shoreham on Thursday.
When they reached 15, they pulled off the colorful bandannas that covered their eyes. Nick strained his face and tried to keep his eyes open without blinking, as parent and school volunteer Lyn Fontinell instructed.
In those few moments, with their eyes ultra sensitive to the light after being covered in dark, Nick and his friends were able to better understand some of the challenges students with autism face every day.
In this case, it was a vivid demonstration of sensory sensitivity.
“My eyes were watering,” Nick said after the exercise. “I wonder what it feels like to have to do that all the time.”
In recognition of Autism Awareness Month observed each April, Lynda Kranidis, a special education teacher at the school, began hosting this awareness exercise to help students better understand what life with autism can be like.
“We all interact differently with the world,” she said. “We ended up creating these five stations so they can walk through the footsteps of a child with autism.”
While sensory issues are not a qualifying characteristic of autism, Kranidis said most of her students have some special sensory needs. Students visit the stations around the cafeteria and participate in activities that heighten or decrease their senses. Students from Kranidis’ class roam the cafeteria, joining in with different groups.
At the station exploring touch, Jennifer Reese, a teacher’s assistant in the special education classroom, asked the group how many are bothered by tags in the back of their shirts or on their clothing. She explained that for some children with autism, that same uncomfortable feeling is magnified, making it unbearable for them. To show them what she meant, they all rolled up their sleeves and stuck their arms in a sleeve made out of a rough, brown burlap sack.
“It felt hard and scratchy, especially on the underside of my arm,” said fourth-grader Grace Curry.
At another station, students wore headphones and listened to music while friends across the table tried asking them questions, like: Who is your favorite singer? What is your favorite food? To make it even more difficult, they covered their mouths with paper.
“When you have so much coming into your ears, it is hard to focus,” said another parent and volunteer, Alonna Rubin. “You did this for one minute and it was difficult. Think about having to do this all day long.”
Pictured above: A student at Miller Avenue School in Shoreham listens to music and tries to answer questions, experiencing how children with autism must focus while affected by noise. (April 5, 2012)