Fairforest first-grader dreams big despite autism diagnosis
Herald-Journal - 3/23/2019
March 23-- Mar. 23--Fairforest Elementary School first-grader Jackson Cantrell has always liked deconstructing things, tearing them apart to get a look at how they work on the inside.
Thanks to new technology and the encouragement of his family and teachers, the 6 year old -- who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3 -- is seeing the world in a new way.
Earlier this year, using Ozobots -- imagine a miniature palm-sized robot with flashing lights that can move around its environment with the help of instructions from its user -- Jackson earned first place in his school's STEM science fair category, and first place in grades K-2 overall for his work.
It's a baby step along Jackson's educational journey, but for the boy and his family, the win meant much more.
"I was so floored," said Jennifer Cantrell, Jackson's mother. "He's a man of few words, but he was so happy and so proud of what he did."
Using cardboard, construction paper, tape and markers, Jackson laid out a mini-race track complete with hills and tunnels for his Ozobot to crawl across. The trick? He had to use colored markers in certain sequences to tell his robots what to do.
As the robots crawl down the track Jackson created, sensors on their bottom recognized changes in the sequence of colors and reacted accordingly. Fairforest Elementary Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Coordinator Ashley Blackwelder said the point is to teach the building blocks of coding and to show students the power of using information to manipulate objects in the physical world.
"I want to be an engineer," Jackson said. "I want to build things."
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Jennifer Cantrell described the challenges she has faced since realizing her son might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum disorder.
"He actually started therapy at 22 months old, because I just knew it in my gut," she said. "When a mama knows something isn't right, she just knows."
Individuals on the autism spectrum communicate and interact with the world around them differently than most people, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It's labeled a "spectrum" disorder because the range of issues and challenges can differ from person to person.
The percentage of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has climbed in recent years to about 1-in-59 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For children like Jackson, a range of therapies and treatments are usually in order.
For many families, intensive applied behavior analysis therapy, in particular, has shown to be of tremendous value. You might think of such therapy as a tailored solution to meet the specific challenge someone on the autism spectrum deals with. According to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, applied behavior analysis therapy focuses on identifying behavioral goals and using positive reinforcement to promote a particular behavior.
That means it's also in high demand, and many families end up on waiting lists. Cantrell said her family's insurance provider also doesn't cover applied behavior analysis therapy.
At this point, Cantrell said the bulk of Jackson's therapies are provided through Spartanburg School District 6 as part of his individual education plan.
"I think sometimes parents get hung up on this idea that their child has to have this specific treatment or their child is never going to progress," she said. "And I'm just going to say that's wrong. We're taking every advantage of everything we can provide, that the school can provide, and I want people to know that you just keep pushing and things get better."
That means trying new things and adapting along the way, Cantrell said.
Jackson's affinity for Ozobots, however, shocked her.
"He doesn't relate all that well with toys, for whatever reason," Cantrell said. "But he loves science. He fell in love with the STEM lab. It just works for him."
Cantrell said it's also important to help children on the autism spectrum capitalize on their strengths. The coloring required to program the Ozobots needs to be fairly precise, for instance, and Jackson's detail-oriented nature plays to his advantage.
"The school system has been a really great partner on this," Cantrell said. "They've supported us on this, and we discovered right here in STEM lab that he really loves to do something. That means everything as a parent, and I just want other parents going through this to know it gets better."
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