ASA's 36th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-16, 2005)

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Friday, July 15, 2005: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
#1538- How to Present an Autism Awareness Program for Your Child's Classmates
Learn how to present fun and fascinating autism awareness programs for elementary and middle school children. This session is lead by a former inclusion classroom teacher who began presenting these programs for the classmates of her son, who has Asperger’s. Audience participation games and activities promoting understanding will be demonstrated.

Presenter:Jeanne Lyons, Tunes for Knowing and Growing, Inc., President - Jeanne Lyons is the proud mom of a teenage son with Asperger's. She is an ASA award recipient for her CD of songs teaching social skills and autism awareness. A former elementary school inclusion teacher, Jeanne lectures internationally on autism. Her work has been featured on Dateline NBC and CNN.
Jeanne Lyons will demonstrate methods for presenting lively, meaningful autism awareness programs for children. Jeanne has presented school assemblies and classroom programs about autism for the past ten years in many different schools. Teachers have often reported to Jeanne that positive changes have occurred in their classrooms after their students have participated in her programs. Classmates harboring misguided suspicions, fears, and annoyances regarding “autism behaviors” tend to adopt attitudes of interest, understanding, admiration, protection and support. Friendships blossom!

Parents who have often thought, “If only I could help the other kids to understand,” will be given a wealth of ideas and demonstrations of activities, games, stories, and recorded songs that promote understanding. Even attendees who are frightened by the idea of speaking to a room full of kids, will learn the skills they need to be successful. She will also discuss the impact that her autism awareness programs have had upon her son Shawn's inclusion classrooms and upon his own development as a child who has Asperger's Syndrome.

Attendees will first learn the essentials of how to introduce themselves and the topic of autism with enthusiasm, expressing excitement that by the time their presentation is over, twenty five more people in the world (or however many kids are in the room) will know about autism. Video will be shown, demonstrating the differences in the demeanor presenters might use with primary grade children vs. middle school children.

Because the presentation elements they will learn to use are lively and participatory, they will then learn several easy crowd control and refocusing techniques to briefly practice with their audience. These are easy techniques like getting the kids to echo back a clapping rhythm, or the old standby of quietly saying things like, “If you can hear me, touch your nose . . . or pat your head . . . or clap 5 times” . . . until all the kids are listening for the next weird command and then the next part of the presentation. Attendees of this session will then learn to remind their young listeners that if they start to get too wound up, this game technique will be used to help everyone settle down so there will be enough time for them to do all the fun activities that have been planned for this presentation. Techniques like this make it possible for novice presenters to proceed with confidence.

Attendees will next learn how to explain that everyone has things that they can do very well, and things that they have a hard time doing, referring to these as gifts and needs (or perhaps talents and challenges). They will learn how to ask three or four kids to quietly raise hands to first tell about their gifts, and describe any opportunities they have had to teach others to do what they can do. The presenter will then learn to repeat this question and answer sequence, regarding any needs the kids are willing to share, discussing how it feels to be helped with one's special needs. Questioning techniques that promote a wide variety of answers, and ways to keep the questions and answers brief and too the point, will be shown.

Autism can be explained by introducing the idea that while everybody has gifts and needs, some kids have a need that most people have never thought about. Learning to play and to have the types of friendly conversations that other kids have, can be a special need or a special challenge for some kids. Most children in the audience will be very surprised to learn this. Asking for a show of hands of kids who have a gift for playing and talking with friends, will surprise kids who have never thought of these as skills or special gifts. They usually have never thought of playing or talking as talents they can share with kids who struggle to play and talk in the ways in which most kids do. Kids need to be reminded, however, that like everyone else, kids with autism also have gifts that other kids can discover.

Parents might want to make their presentation specific to their child at this point, perhaps by showing a video of their child doing a favorite activity outside of school. By telling favorite stories about their child, parents can explain specific gifts their child brings to their family. For example, “Because of Susan's amazingly high energy and stamina, we are all in great shape from trying to keep up with her.” Or, “We have a family party every time Zach starts using a new word regularly. We don't know any other family that has as many parties as we do.” Or, “Because of Griffin, we have gone for incredible rides in hot air balloons almost twenty times! He knows everything about how they're made and how they operate. Raise your hand if you'd ever be interested in riding in a hot air balloon with Griffin and us sometime.”

Future autism awareness presenters will learn that if they are going to introduce the words “Asperger's Syndrome” they should be careful to first show the words in writing to an audience of kids. Presenters must get the kids to read and sound out the word “Asperger's” before they say it aloud, explaining that AS is named after Dr. Hans Asperger. If kids hear the word "Asperger's," before they see it in writing, they will think the presenter is saying, “A_ _ Burgers,” and will not be able to hear anything else the presenter says, because they will be giggling at the thought of a burger made out of meat from a bizarre source!

Kids need to know that autism is not contagious, and that people with autism can have gifts and needs that are very big, medium or not so big. People with autism have their gifts (all sorts of gifts that might be easy or hard to identify at first) and some unexpected needs (like struggling to play and have conversations, the way most kids do) because their brains work differently, which makes their senses work differently.

All sorts of fun audience participation demonstrations can be used to show what it would be like to have senses that either take in too much, or not enough, information. These will be demonstrated with videos containing many ideas for props (especially sensory integration equipment that might be borrowed from an occupational therapist) that can be used. Presenters can explain that if any of the kids are lucky enough to get to be in a class with a kid who has an autism spectrum difference, they might even get a chance to try out the kid's sensory equipment, because sensory activities can be helpful and fun for lots of people who have, or don't have, autism. Kids in the audience can be helped to act out situations in which people with and without autism help each other out, sharing gifts, and helping with needs. The situations that parents set up for this role play exercise can involve carefully chosen behaviors -- behaviors that peers might see their classmate with autism doing and might not understand why or what to do. (This must be done respectfully.) Parents can help the peers to role play ways in which the parents would like peers to interact with their child. These role playing situations should be discussed with the child's teacher first, who might make helpful suggestions.

Attendees will learn two audience participation games, one that shows kids (and teachers!) how to replace negative words with positive words when helping someone. The other game is a demonstration, for older children, that uses different types of chocolate as a model for how scientists think serotonin works in the brain. The chocolate game encourages discussion about how to interact with someone with autism who happens to seem grumpy a lot.

Jeanne Lyons will also show how to use songs about autism (that she has written and made into a CD) in autism awareness presentations as a way to pique interest and focus attention. The songs can be played and discussed with older kids, or simple hand motions and dancing can be added for younger audiences to try.

Equipped with an abundance of ideas, parents will be able to pick and choose activities, games, brief question and answer sessions, stories, demonstrations and even songs to use in autism awareness presentations. Having the courage to talk openly with their child's classmates, about why he or she does some things differently than other kids, can help classmates to better understand their child. By teaching peers about autism, parents just might increase their child's opportunities for playing and developing friendships. Plus, peers will become more likely to reap the benefits that flow from learning to share gifts and needs AND FRIENDSHIP with a person who has autism spectrum differences and so very much to offer the world.

See more of The ASA's 36th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-16, 2005)