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Parents, teachers, peers team up to help Fargo autistic children

FARGO Fourth-grader Brooke Pella learned a valuable lesson at Bennett Elementary School in Fargo - outside her classroom. In a group of kids who meet once a week, called the "Circle of Friends," Pella worked closely with friend and autistic class...

FARGO

Fourth-grader Brooke Pella learned a valuable lesson at Bennett Elementary School in Fargo - outside her classroom.

In a group of kids who meet once a week, called the "Circle of Friends," Pella worked closely with friend and autistic classmate Ryan Meyer, helping him practice social skills.

But Meyer taught her a valuable lesson in exchange: what life is like with autism.

"It's very hard for him," Pella said, adding she wishes more kids could be in the group to better understand the disorder. "They'd understand this kid has a tough life."

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Limited resources

Bennett Elementary is among the local school programs aimed to make a difference in autistic students' lives.

But with 85 Fargo students and nearly 70 West Fargo students identified as autistic this year - numbers that are steadily increasing - districts grapple with limited resources.

"It's a nationwide problem; it's not just a North Dakota problem," Lynn Dodge of North Dakota's Department of Public Instruction said about the lack of qualified autism-specialized teachers and school funds.

Fargo Special Education Unit Special Education Director John Yates said it's a challenge to respond individually to such a wide-ranging disorder.

"(But) we do terrific," he said. "I could never say we're doing enough."

In West Fargo, the district is hiring an autism specialist who will train staff and work with families this fall.

And in Minnesota, a state autism task force is looking at how to better help schools, specifically high schools, respond to the increase in autistic students, said Eric Larsson of Minnesota's chapter of Autism Speaks, an advocacy group.

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Many Minnesota schools have ABA therapy, also known as an intensive early intervention program, and there are several private autism-specific centers in the state, he added.

Is it enough?

But some are critical of whether local schools are doing enough.

"They need a specific program the minute they enter the school system," said Sandy Smith of Fargo, whose son is autistic. "And it needs to be a one-on-one intensive intervention program."

She also urges the educational establishment to better train teachers in autism.

"You don't learn it in a workshop; you don't learn it in two weeks," said Crystal Ringenberg, the program director at Smith's nonprofit, the North Dakota Autism Center.

Yates said the district faces a challenge in balancing the many demands already placed on teachers.

"It's kind of a battle we fight in the school district - we have so many initiatives ... that all require staff training," he said. "The real reality of it is there aren't unlimited resources."

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So teachers and specialists do what they can with what they have.

'Our recycling guy'

At Fargo's Lewis and Clark Elementary School is the district's only autism resource room - a 7-year-old magnet program.

There, special education teacher Dawn Forde and other specialists such as speech pathologist Kim Myers help the district's students with the most severe autistic symptoms.

"We kind of look at the resource room as a safe haven for them," Forde said. "A lot of the things you learn from your peers, they miss. Life is very frustrating for them."

To reward good behavior, they give students an unusual reward: jobs.

No one relishes the hands-on tasks more than Christopher Fehr, "our recycling guy."

"He feels like he's helping others, and it's a huge sensory thing," Forde said about the energetic fourth-grader. "Now we have a full recycling program."

The purpose of the program, as well as the school video store that her students operate, is to help the students with autism practice functional and social skills.

"Our goal is to have them mainstreamed," Myers said. "You can compensate for deficiencies; they really have eyelets of ability."

Back at Bennett Elementary, counselor Julie Krejci and special education teacher Jolyn Krabbenhoft started "Circle of Friends" not just to help autistic students, but to teach today's youth to be empathetic and compassionate toward those with disabilities.

"Imagine being a cat in a dog's world," Krabbenhoft said. "These people believe and think the way they do because of that disorder. Society is stretching them."

Krejci said the fourth-grade students participating in "Circle of Friends" have developed a lot of compassion and empathy.

"If only all people could be as accepting as these kids," she said.

If you go

What: Walk and Ride for Autism; proceeds will benefit the North Dakota Autism Center in Fargo

When: Today

Where: Walk at Lindenwood Park in Fargo; Motorcycle ride starts at the Dilworth VFW

Info: For start times and to register, go to www.ndautismcenter.org .

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