RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
A table set up in the Randolph Elementary School foyer has been turned into a temporary learning center, decorated with a brightly colored poster and stacked with books, fliers and other educational materials.
The site is part of a month-long campaign to teach students about autism, a disability that affects an estimated one in every 110 children in the United States, and to promote acceptance of those who live with the "spectrum" disorder that affects their ability to communicate and interact with others.
"Our purpose is to raise awareness of autism," said Angela Sherrod, a parent whose 8-year-old son, Ryan, was diagnosed with the disorder at age 3 and is now a second-grader at Randolph. "We also intend to focus on acceptance during our time with the students."
Ms. Sherrod and two other parents, Dee Coker and Melody Hughes, started the campaign at Randolph Elementary last April for Autism Awareness Month. For this year's observance, Ms. Sherrod and Ms. Coker plan to read the book "Since We're Friends" to students April 21. The book looks at autism from the point of view of a boy whose friend is affected by the disorder, promoting acceptance of people who are different.
"We are hoping that last year's introduction to the students about autism will just be enhanced this year with more basic information, and we hope they will become more aware of their own ability to be a friend to someone who may be different from them," she said. "This is a big message including all differences."
Special education teacher Bridget Brennan-Bergmann said all students will have an opportunity to attend the presentation by Ms. Sherrod and Ms. Coker.
"We have a system to share information through PE classes," she said. "They will share the book grade level at a time. By the end of the day, everybody at the school will have learned about autism."
A community event designed to raise awareness about autism is Any Baby Can's sixth annual Walk for Autism April 24 in San Antonio, Ms. Sherrod said. She also said an HBO movie showing this month, "Temple Grandin," focuses on an autistic woman who overcame the stigma of her condition to become a hero in the cattle industry.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is defined by a certain set of behaviors, according to the Autism Society of America Web site. Among the signs autistic children may exhibit are lack of delay in spoken language, repetitive use of language and/or motor mechanisms, little or no eye contact, lack of spontaneous or make-believe play, lack of interest in peer relationships and persistent fixation on parts of objects.
Ms. Brennan-Bergmann said nine children at Randolph Elementary are diagnosed with autism. She said that is a high number, but the Air Force assigns personnel to bases with the resources to meet families' exceptional medical needs. She also said Randolph partners with schools at Fort Sam Houston and Lackland Air Force Base to provide therapy for the children.
Ms. Brennan-Bergmann said teachers at Randolph Elementary welcome students with special needs, and her principal, Karen Bessette, quickly concurred.
"Teachers want kids with special needs in their classroom," she said. "There's a spirit of acceptance."
Ms. Sherrod, who called her son "very high functioning," said he has made great progress at Randolph.
"Randolph has been a blessing to us," she said. "They are very open and willing to go the extra mile. They provide more things than other schools."
Ms. Bessette attributed the progress of Ryan and other autistic students to "a team effort in partnership with the parents." She said the school's staff is "invested in the school" and provide "a human and personal touch."
Ms. Sherrod said parents who believe their children may be autistic should seek immediate help. She said early intervention helped her son.
"If you see any of the signs of autism, go to your pediatrician and keep pushing until you get answers," she said.
Some online autism resources are www.autism-society.org, www.autismspeaks.org, www.operationautismonline.org, www.autismcommunitynetwork-sa.org and www.anybabycansa.org.