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Autism Spectrum Disorder and Tift County Schools

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by communication difficulties, social deficits, repetitive behaviors and interests, sensory issues and cognitive delays. Officials in the Tift County School System have seen a rise in the number of students diagnosed with Autism and are working to better serve those students’ needs.

Kim Bruce, occupational therapist and autism coordinator, has been with Tift County Schools for eight years. During that time she has seen a significant rise in the students presenting to school with symptoms of Autism.

“The new diagnostic criteria defines Autism as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Previous diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorders including Asperger's Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder have been eliminated,” Bruce said. “ASD is then broken down to levels one, two and three, with three being the most severe.”

The reasoning for the new diagnostic criteria was to focus on the consistency and validity of the diagnosis. Individuals with specific symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder are better represented this way because they demonstrate similar symptoms that are differentiated by levels of severity and associated features such as genetic disorders, epilepsy and intellectual disability.

Bruce recently was named a certified Autism practitioner using the TEACCH program, becoming one of the few in the state. She went through an extensive process to achieve this designation. This new training, in addition to the existing participation in the Emory University Autism Support Network, will allow her work with staff throughout the school system to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to be successful in school and life.

The University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism program is a university-based system of community regional centers that offers a set of core services along with unique demonstration programs meeting the clinical, training and research needs of individuals with ASD, their families and professionals.

A major component of the program is “structured teaching”.

“Structured Teaching is ‘learning how to learn’ and providing necessary supports to promote independence and understanding,” she said. “It begins with teaching a structure, and then using the structure to teach the curriculum.”

There are five areas that build on one another, and all emphasize the importance of predictability and flexible routines in the classroom setting.

The progression of the program begins with Physical Structure of the environment, and then moves to Visual Schedules, Work Systems, Visual Structure of Activities and finally Routines and Strategies.

“This system helps the child with Autism focus and engage in classroom learning,” Bruce said. “It is highly individualized for each student and allows us to find specific ways of structuring their classroom work for optimal learning and engagement.”

Tift Schools are currently serving more than 50 autistic students, with most in inclusion classrooms instead of self-contained special education classrooms.