April 19, 2005

A Beautiful Thing

A great way to help an autistic student and build a bunch of compassionate adults.

Fellow students pave the way for autistic classmate
Sandy Cullen Wisconsin State Journal

Twelve-year-old Garner Moss is fascinated with maps and has an uncanny knack for remembering geographic locations.

He also loves buses and can hear one eight blocks away, said Brent Lodewyk, his teacher at Stephens Elementary.

That's why Lodewyk had to move his combined fourth- and fifth-grade class from the street side of the school to the back.

Garner, who has autism, would jump out of his seat and stand at the window, excitedly announcing, "The bus is coming!"

Moving Garner's classroom is just one of the things that makes it easier for him to be in a regular classroom. At times he wears headphones to listen to music so he's not as distracted by other things that are happening around him.

In addition to his classroom teacher and special education teacher Kara Meyers, he gets lots of support from his classmates, who formed the group A Helping Hand For Autism to help other students understand more about the neurological disability that can affect how a person sees, hears, feels and communicates - and about Garner.

"It's really created by kids, run by kids," Lodewyk said.

The fourth- and fifth-graders in AHHFA - pronounced "ah- fa" - have put together a presentation they are taking to other classes at Stephens this month, which is Autism Awareness Month.

They also will be making a DVD to introduce Garner and explain his autism to the new classmates he will encounter next year at Jefferson Middle School.

As part of their presentation, group members are asking students to decorate a drawing of a hand and hang it up outside of their classroom as a show of support.

Their presentation also includes a poster board with photographs of Garner enjoying swimming, hiking and horseback riding.

"Just because a person has autism doesn't mean that they can't do all that stuff," said fifth-grader Lexus James, 11.

In fact, the group's young members can tell you, Mozart, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein had some degree of autism.

Their display uses puzzle pieces to represent the mystery of autism - for which there is no known cause or cure - along with bright colors that represent hope.

Next year, they hope to do presentations at other schools, such as Jefferson and Spring Harbor Middle School.

AHHFA members, who have their own bright green T-shirts, meet once a week over lunch with Garner's mom, Beth Moss, who helps the students plan activities.

She hopes that being in a regular classroom will enable Garner to function independently in the real world, where perhaps he could get a job mapping bus routes.

That's why Garner's family moved from Tennessee to Madison, which has a reputation for successful inclusion of students with special education needs in regular classes.

Students with special needs are segregated only when it benefits the student, or to address behavior or safety concerns, and only for as long as necessary, said Jan Duxstad, a special education coordinator for the district.

Not only did Moss choose Madison, she selected Stephens Elementary after speaking with Principal Nancy Yoder.

At Stephens, Garner is one of 12 students with autism, or 3 percent of the school's students, Meyers said, adding that other schools in the district, as well as nationally, typically have 1 percent of students with the disorder.

In the district, 328 students have some form of autism, spokesman Ken Syke said.

Lodewyk, who has been Garner's classroom teacher for two years, said AHHFA has made a big difference in Garner's confidence and personal growth.

"They're really teachers," Lodewyk said of the group's members. "He's very supported by his friends."

"People were teasing our friend, Garner, and I wanted to help stop that," said fifth- grader Azucena Wisch, 11.

"They were telling him to hug other people and telling him to say stuff to other people because they thought it was funny," Wisch said, adding, "He'd be the one to get in trouble."

"When I didn't know him, I admit I teased him a bit," said fifth-grader Robert Quintana. "I wanted to start being his friend to help him out."

AHHFA members who are going on to Jefferson say they will continue to look out for Garner at their new school.

Garner said he likes having a group of supporters to lend him a helping hand.

"I have more friends with AHHFA," said Garner, who isn't worried about having to go to a new school next year. "I'm excited."

Fifth-grader Camden Hirshfeld said, "Through AHHFA and our help of Garner, he has become a much better student and has got a lot of good friends, including me."

Contact Sandy Cullen at scullen@madison.com or 252-6137.

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