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Midvale Journal

Whittier celebrates autism with shaving cream, Dr. Seuss, understanding

May 08, 2017 04:48PM ● By Travis Barton

Students scoop rice as part of a sensory activity at Whittier Elementary where the school has an entire wing with close to 100 students with autism or other moderate to severe disabilities. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | travis@mycityjournals.com

Melanie Blackburn heard cheers when she entered the classroom. It was from her students with autism dressed in celebratory Dr. Seuss shirts.

“I mean who gets to hear that at your job?” asked Blackburn, a paraeducator at Whittier Elementary School. A paraeducator is a classroom assistant that provides specialized or concentrated assistance to students.

April served not only as Autism Awareness Month, but it also served as a time for celebration at Whittier Elementary School.

Whittier, with its unique wraparound services for kids with moderate to severe mental and/or physical disabilities, commemorated World Autism Day on April 7.

“What we like to do is take a day like this and say these kids have unique things about them that make them special,” said Principal Lynette Golze. “We're a better school because of having these kids.”

Celebrations began in the morning with an assembly where students from the wraparound services wing taught the rest of the school a signing song.

“We love our kids to be able to see the uniqueness of these students,” Golze said.

They continued with Dr. Seuss-themed sensory activities before culminating in a shaving cream sensory activity—students throw shaving cream filled balloons at each other.

“That is the highlight of the year, this is bigger than Christmas for us,” Blackburn said, who helps oversee a class with lower functioning students.

With awareness of autism spreading every year, it’s something Blackburn is happy to see.

“It really did used to just be us who would get so excited and passionate about it,” Blackburn, who has a child with cerebral palsy, said. “But it seems like society as a whole is getting more excited about it and realizing it doesn’t have to be this big scary thing or this huge disability.”

It’s something to be celebrated, accepted and understood.

“That's the biggest thing,” said Camille Gregory, special education teacher. “Is understanding and acceptance of when things look slightly different or someone behaves slightly different it doesn't make them less of a person.”

Blackburn said the students will be successful when people stop being afraid and start celebrating them. Whether those students are launching balls of shaving cream in your direction or trying to give teachers paper hats they made.

“I've worked with a lot of these kids since they were in first grade and I can tell you firsthand that their progress is worth celebrating, it really is,” she said.

Educators noted the development in the way students are deflating their aggression, using verbal cues or using the bathroom by themselves.

“It's a good day to celebrate how far we've come,” Gregory said.

And celebrate they did. Students threw bean bags at plastic cups, scooped American flag-colored rice and played with Silly Putty found inside green eggs. Gregory estimated they use about 300 balloons and 20 pounds of shaving cream for the shaving cream balloon fight.

Classes for the nearly 100 children take place in a separate wing from the rest of Whittier Elementary.

It’s a section of the school designed to meet the needs of these students. Golze said they have private duty nurses, applied behavioral analysis rooms, functional life skills rooms, a sensory room, motor skills room, a weight room and an occupational therapy staff.

“It is very unique,” said Golze, who is in her fifth year at the school.

Gregory, in her third year at Whittier, said the wing is like a “small little family in its own way” and it allows her to have “the best of both worlds” with all the help.

In the lower functioning class, there are nine students with a staff of eight to ensure there’s almost constant engagement, Blackburn said. 

Students also interact with the general education students during adaptive PE or when they are academically ready to integrate.

“It’s a real benefit to have both,” Golze said.

Working with these unique kids may have its challenges, but Blackburn said for the teachers and educators at Whittier, special needs is their life.

“These guys, they just work so hard and their reward is all emotional,” she said.