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South Portland, ME: "Increasing number of children with...autism'; 'we're all differently abled'

Jan 17, 2020, South Portland (ME) Press Herald: Center’s disabilities awareness programs in high demand As schools deal with an increasing number of children with disabilities like autism, demand for disabilities awareness and sensitivity programs has increased, meaning Portland-based organization The Cromwell Center currently has a waiting list of 25 schools. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that while 1 in 88 children in the U.S. had autism in 2008, that number has been steadily increasing. In 2012, it was 1 in 68; in 2018, it was 1 in 59…. “We’re not doing the old-school disabilities awareness where you do an assembly,” said Cromwell Center Executive Director Susan Greenwood. “It’s almost exclusively through classroom programs. We have different programs for each grade and classroom.” The Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness, founded in 2003, provides hands-on, interactive activities that are designed to build sensitivity and understanding, reduce bullying and create safer and more welcoming schools and communities. The programs are popular. Last academic year, the Cromwell Center visited 893 classrooms in 92 schools, including schools in Windham, Standish, Gray, New Gloucester, Bridgton and Naples, and reached over 16,000 students, which marks an 800% increase since 2012. Teresa Prince, school counselor at Sebago Elementary School, likes the Cromwell Center’s programs because they make “you aware that we’re diverse in lots of different ways that maybe aren’t as obvious,” she said. “I enjoy them reinforcing that everyone has abilities. We’re all differently abled.” The programs focus on invisible disabilities, such as learning disabilities or ADHD, because, Greenwood said, that’s often where issues arise in schools. … “The consistent themes among all of our programs are that we’re really all much more alike than we are different, and disabilities are just one way that people are different from one another. We all have challenges. We’re presenting this as just one aspect of human diversity,” Greenwood said. She said that while the programs have been “very, very well received,” the center has been forced to make a wait list for the second year in a row since demand is so high. As a small nonprofit, the organization is constantly working to raise funds so it can pay its program leaders to deliver the programs. This academic year, the center has visited schools in Standish, Raymond, New Gloucester and Naples with plans to visit schools in Gray, New Gloucester and Windham later this spring. Schools in Standish and Bridgton are on the center’s waiting list. Prince said that since the Cromwell Center began visiting Sebago Elementary School six years ago, “certainly just the language that we use has changed. The adults have changed their language and tried to speak in ways that are more sensitive and inclusive toward all the kids and try to encourage that in their students.” She estimates that between 10 and 12 percent of the school’s students have some type of disability and said that while she has not noticed more autism diagnoses in recent years, she said the number of students who are in special education or require an individualized education plan has increased over the last few years. Greenwood said that as the number of autism diagnoses steadily grows and invisible disabilities become more common, it means that programs like those that Cromwell offers become more crucial: “that makes it more important for people to understand.”


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