R.K. Mellon offers life-skills program for autistic students

| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Early last fall, Maxwell Markosky, a 9-year-old third-grader who has autism, would cry nearly every day as he got off the school bus after traveling out of the district to a school that specialized in teaching students with autism, his mother said.

Since he started attending Laurel Valley Elementary School in October, spending part of his day in the autistic-support classroom there, he gets off the bus smiling, said Catherine Markosky, Max's mother.

“I don't think he's come home crying once. That's huge,” the Cook Township resident said. “As a parent of an autistic child, to know that he's in a good place and is learning and is happy every day.”

On the heels of a successful first year for Ligonier Valley's autism-support classroom at Laurel Valley, school directors recently approved an initiative to begin a similar life-skills classroom at R.K. Mellon Elementary School.

It will start in the fall to provide educational services to several kindergartners who would otherwise have to attend programs outside the district, Principal Ed Moran said.

“This is an opportunity to keep five of our little ones here at home,” Moran told the school board in his proposal for the life-skills classroom.

“I want to keep all our babies here where they belong. We need to keep them close to home. We need to keep them with the students they'll see in their neighborhoods and grocery stores and community libraries,” he said.

Students in the classroom will learn skills that will range from hygiene to social skills to retention of basic information such as their birth dates and addresses, Superintendent Chris Oldham said.

Depending on each student's individualized learning programs, they will attend mainstream classes for music, art, shared reading or other lessons and activities.

Markosky said that was something she found especially refreshing for Max in the autism-support class.

“One of the best parts about the program is the mainstreaming. Max tries to emulate the children that are around him. So when he goes into his regular third-grade class and is surrounded by ‘typical' children, he learns how he should behave,” she said.

Other students and teachers have been extremely supportive, according to Carly Graham, who heads the autistic-support program.

“We have kids who ask to sit with us at lunch,” Graham said. “April was autistic awareness (month), and teachers allowed me to provide them with autism-awareness activities for the students.”

The autistic-support class has four full-time students — two third-graders and two kindergartners — who spend the majority of the school day with Graham. Other students filter in and out of the classroom for specific activities.

Graham said a typical day for the students include group activities, one-on-one time with her, independent learning and scheduled time in the “sensory room,” a second room that provides senses-specific stimulation. For example, students can elect to run their fingers through a sandbox, swing on a platform hung from the ceiling or watch water circulate through a plastic tower, making bubbles.

Graham said children with autism tend to be sensitive to noise or smell and can act out when they are overstimulated. Taking breaks in the sensory room helps to keep them grounded throughout the day, she said.

Markosky said Max has made great strides this year.

“He plays with his siblings more now. Before he didn't really know how to sit and play with them, but (Graham) has done group puzzles with them in class, and now we're able to do a puzzle as a family,” she said. “I can't tell you how nice it is to not have to worry about him all day anymore. Now, I just worry what will happen when he moves onto middle school, because this has been such a good program for him.”

Oldham said the autism-support and the life-skills programs will grow with the students.

Jewels Phraner is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-1218 or jphraner@tribweb.com.

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