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Brooke County Schools raise awareness of autism

RAISING AWARENESS — Staff and students have been learning about autism through various activities, including art and essay contests coordinated by Brittany Kocher, behavior specialist at Brooke High School. Winners and participants included, from left, front: Kyla Adams, Zachary Lyons, Brandon Owns and Adia Opie; second row: Nina Goodman, Emerson Siranovic, Vincent Caruso, Brenlee Longwell and Alora Hutchinson; third row: Aleix Shifflett, Paisley Butler, Avery Greene, Jocelyn Golick, Brennen Krzywdik, Tegyn Danielson and Bailey Blackburn; and back: Kocher, Anthony Bado, Aiden Balcezak, Emilee McKinney , William Kreider, Madison Burge, Lyla Horvath, Madison DeGarmo, Kendra Boyd , Liam Helt and Gavin Burns. -- Warren Scott

WELLSBURG — From essays about autism to interviews with pupils on the spectrum, staff and students in Brooke County Schools worked to promote awareness in April.

The Brooke County Board of Education, during its meeting Monday, viewed a video showing students at local schools forming a blue ribbon, a symbol of National Autism Awareness Month, outside their buildings and featuring interviews with students diagnosed with autism.

The autism spectrum is a broad group of complex conditions affecting brain development and, to varying degrees, social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

It’s not unusual for those with autism to feel isolated from their peers.

But the interviews revealed youth who enjoy many of the same things as their classmates. One commented that many think autism is a mental handicap that can’t be overcome, but he’s proud to say he’s proving them wrong.

The video was produced by Kevin Elias, Brooke High School’s broadcast technology instructor; and his students.

Brittany Kocher, a behavior specialist at the high school, said the students watched videos explaining autism and how to interact with someone with autism.

Younger pupils heard a reading of “The Girl Who Thought in Pictures,” and were instructed to draw a picture within a puzzle piece, also a symbol of Autism Awareness, that conveyed what being accepted means to them.

Older students watched a videotaped talk by the book’s author — Temple Grandin, a scientist best known for her efforts to promote the humane treatment of animals.

The 73-year-old Grandin wasn’t diagnosed with autism until much later in life and spoke of her difficulties fitting in with other children and adapting with her differences with the support of her family.

Grandin, who earned a doctorate in animal science, had been diagnosed as brain damaged as a child.

Afterward, the students were asked to write essays about how the talk changed their perception of people with autism.

The essays and art were entered into a contest and the following winners named:

Kyla Adams, Zachary Lyons, Brandon Owns, Adia Opie, Nina Goodman, Emerson Siranovic, Vincent Caruso, Brenlee Longwell, Alora Hutchinson, Aleix Shifflett, Paisley Butler, Avery Greene, Jocelyn Golick, Brennen Krzywdik, Tegyn Danielson, Bailey Blackburn, Anthony Bado, Emilee McKinney, Madison Burge, Lyla Horvath, Madison DeGarmo, Kendra Boyd and Liam Helt.

The board praised Kocher and the school’s staff for their efforts.

Board member Antoinette Perkins, a former special education instructor, said she was pleased to see students with autism playing an active role.

“It’s so good to see kids feel they are a part of it,” she said.

Also on Monday, the board heard school improvement council reports from Nadine Sweda, principal of Brooke Intermediate North; and Michael Lewis, principal of the Alternative Learning Center.

Sweda praised her teaching staff for adapting quickly to virtual instruction, when pupils were learning from home either all or part of the work, to ensure material was well covered.

She added the staff received additional training on Wednesdays when the school was closed for cleaning.

Sweda said since returning to five days a week, pupils have been involved in community service projects, including collecting $700 each for the backpack food program conducted by St. Anthony Catholic Church for students in need and the Brooke-Hancock Relay for Life.

Lewis said it was difficult for many ALC students to connect with their teachers, so his staff often visited them at home, bringing with them food provided by Follansbee Church of Christ.

“We were able to keep in touch with them, maintain communication, because that was our biggest fear, that we would lose them,” he said.

Lewis said with the help of the Brooke County West Virginia University Extension Service, students have planted a community garden while there are plans for a representative of AmeriCorps to talk to them about drug addiction.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)

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