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UPDATED: Autism advocate says more can be done

News Courier - 10/20/2018

Oct. 19--Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the recipients and purpose of the grant.

Educational programs for children diagnosed with autism have increased in recent years, but a local advocate says there's still much work to be done.

In a ceremony Thursday, a $500 community grant from the Autism Society of Alabama was presented to Athens State University Foundation and librarians, Mary Aquila, Amber Skantz and Jennifer Wolfe.

The funds will be used to train Athens City School librarians on how to present Sensory Storytime techniques to children on the Autism Spectrum.

Tomerlin, program director for Autism Society of Alabama, North Alabama division, presented the check. Autism is personal to him and his family because his 18-year-old son Gage is autistic, though mid-to-high functioning.

"He'll never drive or be independent, but he'll talk to you about geography or politics all day," Tomerlin said of his son.

Tomerlin said teacher interaction with autistic children can be frustrating, which is why training is necessary. He added story-time can be effective, especially in a sensory environment with low noise and low light.

The impetus for the grant was Athens State University associate librarian Jennifer Wolfe, whose 8-year-old son Alaric is on the spectrum. He attends story-time events at the library, and Wolfe approached Athens State and Athens City Schools about training educators who interact with autistic children.

Tomerlin said there needs to be more initiative taken to help autistic children in North Alabama. He believes there is a significant number of autistic children in the area because there are so many engineers who live here.

"A lot of engineers are high-functioning Asperger's and may have children on the spectrum," he said.

In sharing his personal opinion, Tomerlin believes many school systems neglect the needs of autistic students. He believes many school systems see providing instructional aides as a drain on resources, preferring instead to let an autistic child advance to the next grade level.

"It's the same story, and it doesn't matter what county you're in," he said. "Some principals look at (autistic) kids as being in the way."

When asked about the possibility of starting schools specifically for autistic children, Tomerlin said it's an idea that's been discussed, but the concept may be easier than the reality. Such a school would require specially trained staff and a steady flow of revenue to stay afloat.

Tomerlin said he would just like to see public schools show commitment to all children, including those on the spectrum. He also hopes more employers take a chance on hiring autistic children after graduation.

"For the most part, employers look at those young adults as being able to work at a laundromat or at McDonald's," he said. "But some of them are really smart and given the opportunity, they could have more advanced jobs. There have been some people who advanced from picking up laundry to X-ray technician."

Hiring autistic people could have other benefits, too, Tomerlin said.

"Part of autism is being non-social, so they're not going to be shooting the bull all day. When they're supposed to be doing one thing, they do it. They make good employees, if given the opportunity."

Still, to get to that level, Tomerlin said autistic children need an early educational foundation. He hopes the grant presented Thursday will be a stepping stone on the path.

"It's very big in their development," he said. "They do a wonderful job at both the Athens State and Athens-Limestone Public libraries, and I'm sure (the grant) will be helpful."

For more information on the Autism Society of Alabama, visit https://www.autism-alabama.org.

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(c)2018 The News Courier (Athens, Ala.)

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