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Program helps autistic children socialize
Sitting around a small table in their classroom, a small circle of Golden Isles Elementary students eagerly listened to their teacher, Erin Young.

Grouped together in the center of the table were baby oranges each child had put their mark on with stickers.

"Where's your orange?" Young asked the students, who identified their personal fruit.

Young and her classroom paraprofessionals then quickly peeled the oranges and stuck them back in the center. As expected, without any discerning features, the students could not identify which orange belonged to them.

"Do they all look the same? Are we all the same inside?" Young asked as the students nodded.

While the lesson was centered around anti-discrimination in Young's unit on Black History Month, it was quite fitting for her Communication, Academics, Behavior and Socialization - or CABS - classroom.

The six students grouped around her are autistic and are often themselves a bit misunderstood in the community.

"Just because these kids may act or speak differently, the ability is there. You just have to have the patience to take the time to get to know each child," Young said.

Fourteen students are enrolled in the program at Golden Isles Elementary, each with different needs. Some thrive just fine in a regular classroom or are in the gifted program but sometimes need to come back to Young's room for break time. Others, like the six in her room Wednesday, spend almost 80 percent of their time with her but are still continuing to learn.

"Throughout the day, we work on communication, academics, behavior and socialization, but each child has a specific goal," she said. "This program allows for that individualization. Academics are on grade level, but we also do remedial activities."

Holding up her iPad, student Keegan Stalvey demonstrated the variety of communication activities needed in the CABS classroom. Keegan, a non-verbal autistic child, can easily use her tablet to say hello and even explain who the students are learning about. An automated voice says, "Martin Luther King" and "Rosa Parks."

The students also work on behavioral aspects and on social skills like giving compliments.

"This program is built to where we can teach them the skills they need to be successful out in the regular education," she said. "They're working with their peers in the classroom and they're making gains."

Austin Brown, another non-verbal student, picked up a smart phone and demonstrated how he could ask for another orange using a phone application.

Another student, Jonathan Wicker, quickly read a short story on his own, something that just a short time ago wasn't easy. Jonathan, like many of the other students, was mostly capable of echoing teachers instead of doing things on their own.

"We celebrate every little victory in here," she said. "The perception is that they're not on level, but we're combatting that. Each child has specific challenges. Autism isn't just one thing. There's a huge umbrella these kids fall under."

* Reporter Sarah Lundgren writes about education and other local topics. Contact her at, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 322.

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