Camelot TDS of Hoffman Estates – Actively Spreading the Word About Autism Awareness
Autism Awareness Month – a time each year designed to bring awareness and acceptance to children with autism – is a special period at Camelot’s seven therapeutic day schools in Illinois. This year, Camelot’s Hoffman Estates campus marked the occasion with many activities for their students and families.
“We tell our students with autism that we are celebrating them, and we embrace them,” says Hoffman Estates Executive Director, Jennifer Burke. “They participate in all the activities.
Because blue is the color of autism awareness, the school began the month with Light Up Blue Day on April 2. All staff members wore blue including blue glow bracelets. They also hung a supportive banner in the school’s lobby, which was decorated with mini-blue lights, and the school’s art therapist painted a mural on the lobby window for all to see.
Guests were invited to purchase autism awareness t-shirts to help the cause. The entire month of April is devoted to raising money to donate to Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the life span, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Staff will wear the shirts for the annual Autism Walk on June 1, in downtown Chicago, and Camelot will also participate in the Autism Speaks North Shore Walk on April 28.
Penny wars is another month-long fundraising activity for the school. Every classroom has a jar and collects as many pennies as possible. All the pennies count toward a positive amount, and then, if somebody from another class sneaks a silver coin in the container, the value of the jar goes down. “Some families send in rolls of quarters so their child can ‘sabotage’ a class’s penny jar,” Burke says. Of course, the actual motive is to increase the amount of money raised. Hoffman Estates expects to raise an additional $300 from the penny war contest to donate to Autism Speaks.
Then there is the door decorating contest. One of the high school classrooms turned the entire back of their door into a sensory exploration station. In general, children with autism can often be overwhelmed, so teachers present sensory items in small increments so they can touch, acclimate to, and manipulate the items. Then the students pick and choose which ones they like best. Students handled things from the station that felt different and smelled different. Several Hoffman Estates students with autism enjoyed that experience.
An important aspect of Autism Awareness Month is for the children themselves to understand each other’s circumstance.
“We try to bridge the gap between our students with social-emotional disorders and those with autism or more significant needs,” Burke said. “We see our social-emotional students form bonds with some of the students that have autism, and then during our afternoon student townhouse meeting, we have students share facts about autism that they learned through research.”
The more awareness the better. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 59 children in the United States is diagnosed with the disorder. Intervention occurs earlier than it once did, which means children receive more support and services when they are younger, which can have a significant impact on their quality of life.
So how is a student referred to Hoffman Estates?
“If a student is not being successful in their current school and it appears they need additional support, the school district and a private placement coordinator send a placement package to Camelot. Camelot screens the packet, schedules a tour for the parents and students to come to take a look at our school to see if we’re able to meet the student’s needs. The student must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) already in place. Camelot adopts all the supports the referring school already has in place and then adds Camelot’s awesome therapeutic services.”
It takes a special kind of individual to do this kind of work, and Burke says the school is lucky to have a committed group of professions on board.
“Every single person comes in every day with a smile on their face, and they leave every day with a smile on their face. Some days are really intense, so seeing these folks come in every day like that and being dedicated to Camelot and the cause, in general, is fantastic. We genuinely care and love these kids. We do a lot of fun stuff to keep the morale high, to keep the students happy, engaged in activities, and promote good mental health support for the staff members as well.”
“Jennifer, in particular, has a gift in fostering a wonderful staff culture that truly celebrates each Camelot child and their special abilities,” says VP of Therapeutic Day Schools Theresa Mortl Smith. “When you walk the halls, it is evident how loved the students in our program are.”
An increased awareness of autism is an ongoing goal but Burke says setting aside an entire month brings an extra focus.
“With the increase in the number of people being diagnosed with autism, it’s extremely important that people understand what type of supports those children require; supporting the people diagnosed with autism as well as their families and becoming aware of the services that are available for people with autism.”