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Armstrong program keeps autistic children in community

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 11:50 p.m.

When Aidan Dunmire was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, his parents, Dave and Nikki of Manorville, didn't hesitate to seek help for their only child.

“We realized we knew what we had to do,” his father Dave said. “We kicked into gear to treat this and make him better.”

Autism, a disorder characterized by difficulties in relating to others, verbal delays and repetitive behaviors, affects 1 in 68 children, according to statistics from the Autism Society. It can be an overwhelming diagnosis, but the Dunmires soon discovered they didn't have to go it alone.

They contacted Family Behavioral Resources in Ford City, which specializes in help for families dealing with autism.

Kimberly Motosicky, the administrative supervisor of FBR, knows the importance of therapy: She has a son with autism.

“I want parents to know, you are not alone. There is support. We will help,” Motosicky said.

The therapists work not only with the child, but with family members to develop the skills necessary for their child to succeed.

“We work with the child, but we look at everything,” said FBR Autism Director Lindsay Gaworski. “We look at everyone — mom, dad, brother, sister. We transfer skills to the family of the child.”

When it's time to go to school, FBR provides “wrap-around help,” where therapists attend school with the child and make sure everyone in contact with the student understands the special needs associated with autism.

“We work with the teacher and anyone else in contact with the child — other children, teachers, janitors,” Gaworski said.

FBR's services are available as soon as a child is diagnosed until the day before their 21st birthday. Motosicky insists the sooner the child receives treatment, the better.

“Getting an early intervention in place is important. They can learn those skills. Our goal is to bring the child to a place where they are successful in their environment, whether at school or at home.”

When Aidan was ready to go to school, he was able to attend a class designed specifically for children with autism.

“He is in an autism support class at Shannock Valley Elementary,” Dave said. “Armstrong County is one of the few school districts that has autism support classes. The district works very well with us.”

The Autism Support Program is the brainchild of Dr. Matthew Pawk and Dr. Michael Glew of the Armstrong County School District.

The program started eight years ago when Pawk and Glew noticed that although some children living with autism could mainstream successfully, others needed more help.

“We always had kids in the general classes who were on the autism spectrums, but others needed a more involved program,” said Pawk, coordinator of special education and psychological services for the school district.

“It's nice to know we have the capability to support kids on the autism spectrum,” said Glew, coordinator of special education and pupil services. “Every child is so very different, but we have services in the district for all degrees of need, and we are very proud of that.”

The class accommodates eight students in kindergarten through sixth grade, but there are plans to expand the program to include middle school students.

The support program allows children with a more severe level of autism to stay within the school district.

“We figured out a way to keep the kids in our community. Common sense says kids belong in our community and a part of our culture,” Pawk said.

Autism support class teacher Trisha Foust sits in a chair more suited for an elementary school student, but looks comfortable in her surroundings.

When the students come in, they are evaluated so each child receives teaching that addresses their individual needs.

A common difficulty these students encounter is the ability to communicate and express themselves verbally.

Flashcards with pictures of objects are a common tool to increase communication abilities, Foust said. As a student is able to consistently point to the correct picture after a specific prompt, he moves up to lessons involving speaking words and phrases. The curriculum, which addresses skills besides communication, is set through a state initiative.

“I have seen a lot of improvement in students,” Foust said. “Students came in only able to speak a couple of words, but now they speak a lot more.”

Kathleen Edwards is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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