Arizona Giving and Leading: Educating Teachers About Asperger’s Syndrome

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On September 15, the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center will deliver 45,000 paper fortune tellers to teachers throughout Arizona to give them information on Asperger’s syndrome, one type of autism. Patty Dion, Co-Founder of SARRC’s Think Asperger’s and Dr. Raun Melmed, SARRC’s Co-Founder and Medical Director, will talk about the effort and Asperger’s syndrome.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Giving and Leading" looks at an effort to educate teachers about Asperger's syndrome. It includes about 45,000 paper fortune-tellers with information about Asperger's to Arizona teachers. Patty Dion is cofounder of Southwest Autism's Research and resource center's "Think Asperger's" campaign. And Dr. Raun Melmed is the center's cofinder and medical director. Good to have you both here, thank you so much for joining you us. Let's talk about this campaign September 15th. What is that?

Patty Dion: I don't know if you remember this as a child, but I sure do. We called them chatterboxes or fortune-tellers and they gave us information. Primarily about who was going to kiss us. But in this campaign we are looking at some of the signs of Asperger's. On each fold of paper we have some of the red flags, for example playing alone. As you then open the chatterbox or fortune-teller, you get a little more defined idea of what that means. And more importantly, you are asked to go to the thinkAspergers.org website and sign up for a free webinar on Asperger's.

Ted Simons: And it is important for teachers to understand Asperger's, because those kids are out there, aren't they.

Dr. Raun Melmed: They sure are. I think more and more people are becoming aware of it and becoming aware of the fact that when you know someone with autism or Asperger's disorder, we say, you know, one person with autism or Asperger's. The big difference between most individuals with autism spectrum disorder and Asperger's disorder that is individuals with Asperger's disorder, which falls under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder, have normally intelligence and normally development. They might not be identified as early as for example the child who is nonverbal. It might only be when they enter into the school system they start to exhibit the signs of social communication deficits, which is the core deficit these individuals have.

Ted Simons: Indeed, is it similar to autism in that there's fixation, repetitive behavior, or is it a little bit different?

Patty Dion: They can certainly have fixated behavior. But as Raun has mentioned, because these children don't have cognitive impairment or language delays, it is very difficult to note their struggle. It really isn't until you put them in a social situation, which our schools offer that that we can pick up on some of the defining struggles of these kids.

Ted Simons: That is true? So basically kind of a lonely I would imagine child in general, put him in a crowd, a classroom, maybe the warning flags start to show?

Dr. Raun Melmed: That's exactly right. So the primary deficit is the social communication challenges, difficulty with reading social cues, difficulty understanding nuance of what other kids are trying to say. Sometimes having unusual language, as well. In addition, the restrictive and repetitive behaviors are often seen, as well. Put them in a situation where they have to learn in a group context, children are divided up and say you work in this team and you work in that team. For the first time they might have really difficulty in adopting for example another kid's perspective. In saying yes, that's correct, we can learn from that and include that. Often these children might be more restricted in terms of their social awareness and might want their way or not at all that. Way they can become isolated.

Ted Simons: What are teachers being told on these fortune-tellers when they see a child and think, I think that child might be under this particular umbrella? What do they need to know?

Patty Dion: One of the particular things is the social isolationism. We have a tape where we went to some of the schools and looked for, what does Asperger's look like. And sometimes it looks like one child walking along the perimeter of a play yard all alone. That's what it could look like. It is that social piece, that missing social piece that really determines the struggle of the child. These kids really have such a difficult time, want to make a friend. And very earnestly are trying to but don't have the social language and the social expertise that the rest of us seem to just gleam naturally.

Ted Simons: Please, please.

Dr. Raun Melmed: I think to take a step back from that, the first job of a teacher, we think it's the first job of schools to screen all children who are attending these schools using a generic screening from the newsroom Asperger's disorder and that's exactly what the "Think Asperger's" program is. And to provide that screening opportunity to every single child. We think that schoolteachers should be utilizing our program which has been standardized and evaluate through a screening process to determine which children might be at risk for Asperger's disorder many that's the primary role we feel for teachers.

Ted Simons: But again, I'm trying to put myself into the position of a teacher. I've got the paper, the fortune-teller. I think I recognize it, I think I've made a discovery, I'm pretty positive on this. What do I do?

Dr. Raun Melmed: Well there are a couple of things to do. First of all, on the chatterbox is our website, you can contact the website, contact directly, as well. You can speak to the school psychologist and say we have concerns about this particular child. We don't think they are really socially interacting with other children, they are not communicating effectively, there are some unusual behaviors, can you come and take a look. It's an overall program, we can actually perform that function for the school. Typically the teacher would then go to the school psychologist.

Ted Simons: Again, for teachers, I want to get group activity, all around the same table, I want them interacting and communicating. But the one kid or these couple of kids here, they may have Asperger's. How do you keep them from being isolated when it seems they want to be -- or they end up being isolated.

Patty Dion: I think at that point when you do notice the difficulty, you would then refer to SARRC and possibly speak to the parents of course. And look to a professional evaluation of your child. And through that we have the program, "Think Asperger's." Through that program we offer intervention therapies for these children.

Dr. Raun Melmed: It might be pretty easy. It might be as simple as going up to Johnny, one of the leaders of the class and saying, Jamie does not do that well on the playground. I would like to you be her partner on the playground to make sure she's introduced to the other kids, that you stand by her. That kind of peer counseling, peer tutoring is enormously effective. That way the child is integrated with the other children more effectively. They feel part of the act and part of the show and hopefully learn from the experience. But there might be more formal interventions to do, as well.

Ted Simons: Good luck with the campaign, sounds like a good one.

Patty Dion:Co-Founder, Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center's Think Asperger's; Dr. Raun Melmed:Co-Founder and Medical Director, Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center;

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