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The City Journals

“Focus on Autism” Class Helps Parents and Teachers

Apr 07, 2016 11:37AM ● By Bryan Scott

By Stephanie Lauritzen | [email protected]

Cottonwood - Holladay - For parents, teachers and friends hoping to support a child with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, learning the right skills and finding the best resources can be challenging. In an effort to increase understanding of autism spectrum disorder, Canyons School District provides free Focus on Autism classes that are open to the public. 

This year’s series began in February, with the final class occurring on April 13. Canyons District Autism and Behavioral Specialist Nate Marsden hopes the classes help community members “clear up any misconceptions they have about working with a child with autism, while learning how to support each child individually.”

The classes are taught by Melisa Genaux, a special-education consultant who travels across the country offering parents and teachers support systems regarding children and students with autism spectrum disorders. Genaux’s classes focus on behavior and classroom management, social skills instruction, consultation skills and special education — including special-education laws and compliance. 

For teachers, Genaux offers suggestions on how to modify or adapt instructional strategies to best help autistic students gain motivation and academic success. She also offers suggestions to parents struggling with behavior issues at home, such as teaching children how to develop “replacement behaviors” for arguing or aggression. 

Though Genaux’s classes are specifically geared toward parents and educators, Marsden emphasizes that the classes are open to the public, and offer beneficial advice for anyone interacting with a child on the spectrum. 

“Chances are that most people will interact with a child on the spectrum at some point, so to have a basic understanding is important for anyone who regularly works with kids,” Marsden said.

Marsden believes the class not only helps people understand autistic children, but it also helps eliminate stereotypes regarding autism spectrum disorders.

“People sometimes fail to realize that the spectrum is wide, and that the best practice is to focus on the individual and what strategies work for that person,” she said.  

For people unfamiliar with autism spectrum disorders such as high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, Marsden notes that many people rely on depictions from popular media to color their perception of how autism presents itself. 

“Autism may look different from what we are used to. For example, people often expect children on the autism spectrum not to communicate well, or to have trouble making eye contact, and that’s simply not true of everyone,” Marsden said. “Unfortunately, we sometimes engage in stereotypes that are not true in every case — not all autistic people have a special gift or skill. Likewise, it’s often assumed that autism causes people to not care about social interaction, and that they don’t want to engage with others and that’s not always true.” 

In addition to the Focus on Autism classes, Marsden is happy there are increased resources for helping communities understand autism better. “We are improving. We’re starting to see more community involvement, from police offers to coaches and other individuals receiving training on how to work with autistic individuals.” 

For parents seeking additional support, Marsden recommends connecting with other families and parents of autistic children and researching support organizations like the Autism Council of Utah. 

Marsden hopes teachers will continue to recognize that “there is no specific class with all the answers regarding autism. Good teachers learn how to work with their students’ strengths and find the supports that work for them individually.” 

The Focus on Autism class is an annual class series sponsored by Canyons School District. The April 13 class will be held in the Canyons School District Administration Building at 9361 South 300 East Sandy, UT 84070 from 4:15 to 7 p.m. The class will focus on recognizing anxiety and depression, as they co-occur with high-functioning autism.