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Morton, IL: School fosters inclusion; "more and more children being diagnosed"

July 27, 2023, WCBU, Peoria, IL: From awareness to inclusion: How one school in Morton is fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity
As noted in part one of this story, autism spectrum disorder can present itself differently in every individual who has it. And with more and more children being diagnosed, making sure those with autism, as well as anyone who is neurodiverse, is set up for success in the classroom becomes a top priority for educators.

In the state of Illinois, there are 13 different categories that can qualify a student for special education. Alyson Baker is the school psychologist at Jefferson Elementary School in Morton.

“Anything from just a speech language impairment to a global developmental delay for kids ages 3 through 9, you have autism, other health impairments so any kind of medical conditions, even something like ADHD or anxiety,” she said. "You have learning disabilities, you have physical vision, hearing impairments, emotional disabilities, so many different things."

Children with autism can become easily overwhelmed, or over-stimulated in a general classroom setting, said Kelly Hobson, the school social worker at Jefferson.

“So, we often provide a lot of accommodations for those things in the classroom so they can still be in that classroom, but in a less stimulating way,” she said.

Noise canceling headphones, preferred seating charts away from the door or other possible distractions, and scheduled breaks are all examples of accommodations that may be utilized.

However, Hobson said it’s important to note that what may work for one student might not be appropriate for another one…..

This approach to keeping neurodiverse children in the classroom as opposed to separating them is becoming more and more common in classrooms. Hobson said each year, they’re taking more steps toward inclusion.

“Not only is it good for kids that may be neurodivergent, but it's also good for kids that are neurotypical to be able to learn from others and learn from their strengths as well,” she said….

Another way the staff at Jefferson promotes inclusivity is through a week-long initiative called Inclusion Week. The idea was first brought up by a mother, and eventually resulted in Hobson, Baker and other staff members running various stations about different disabilities for students to engage with. Now, the entire community is involved with the help of outside organizations coming in to run the stations themselves.

“The whole idea of Inclusion Week is to help provide that knowledge base for students,” Hobson said. “And so we really try to make it fun and hands-on. So every station looks at a different disability, and we show them what it's like to experience that.”

During inclusion week, students at Jefferson learn about topics such as hearing impairments, diabetes, autism, social emotional needs and more.

Everything from vision and hearing impairment, autism, physical disabilities, various medical needs and emotional needs are at stations students visit….

When you just ask a child what they need to be successful in the classroom, it's possible the answer might involve some sort of regulating activity. For these situations, Hobson and Baker spearheaded the creation of a sensory room at Jefferson after being inspired by an educational series on autism for professionals led by the Autism Collective. While there are grants available to help schools build rooms like this, Jefferson’s was funded completely by the administration and the PTO….

“It's filled with items that can either help increase energy for kids that are maybe low on energy that day and need a little boost, or kids that are dysregulated and need to calm their bodies. It can also be helpful for students that need a break from the over stimulation that is outside of that room,” Hobson said.

To curate the perfect selection of items, Baker and Hobson collaborated with the school’s speech therapist, occupational therapist and principal. Some highlights include a swing, tent, texture wall, core vocabulary board, white board, weighted blankets and stuffed animals, a crash pad and sensory boxes filled with things like beans, sand and rocks.

“We made one specifically for a student who had a hard time coming in from recess, because he wanted to be in nature,” Hobson said. "So, now we have a nature box."…


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