Teachable adventures with autistic students

Milford–In January, Special Ed teacher David Torres saw that the Flagship Cinema in Matamoras was available for rent. Torres was intrigued and excited for his autistic students in third to fifth grades. He mentioned the sighting to Ashley Kelley, who teaches autistic children in grades K-2 and April Clark who has the autistic children in grades 6-8.

They all encouraged Torres to reach out to Roxanne DeLellas, the General Manager of the theater to see if she would allow the students to have the theater all to themselves for a movie.

None of these students have ever been to a movie theater because autistic behavior, like repetitive shouting out, walking around and clapping indiscriminately, is stigmatized in the general movie-going population. But Ms. DeLellas welcomed the children.

“We are fortunate to be blessed with such a diverse and inclusive community,” she said. “And we are thankful to Mr. Torres for reaching out to us and arranging the visits for his amazing students. We were able to work with him and his staff to create a comfortable atmosphere for his students.”

The group had four outings to the movie theater and Wendy’s. In January, they saw “Sing 2.” In February, they saw “Norm of the North.” In March, they saw “Car,” and on this particular occasion, April 29, they saw the last of the films for the year, “Bad Guys” after this last film, they presented Roxanne DeLellas with a hand-drawn thank you card for letting them use the theater. Not many adults in the room had dry eyes.”

“Flagship Cinema and Wendy’s were both beyond amazing with our groups,” said Torres. “Many of us may not see the importance of watching a movie, but this was huge for some of our kids. By the last trip to Flagship, all of our kids were able to sit for at least an hour and we even got to shut down the light off which had to be on for the first few times.”

Teacher April Clark added, “With these trips the kids learned a variety of new skills like sitting, waiting, asking for things they need, and getting our attention.” Some kids were able to order popcorn.”

“Wendy’s was amazing too,” Kelley said. They got all our orders in and out during lunch rush hour. They had amazing patience—allowing our kids to order and pay for their own food.– a great future life skill to have and unfortunately an opportunity many of our students don’t get.”

Many additional support staff came along on the trip, including five professionals with the Step-by Step group. They provide behavioral health services in the classroom as well as a speech therapist and several aids. Another source of support is Pike Autism Support Services (PASS) in Milford, which provides support to parents and arranges funding for communication devices, such as iPad with special apps designed for autistic children.

The program has communication and support from parents as well.. One parent, Leantre Coe, accompanied by her 13 year old son . Speaking from a mom’s perspective, she said, “It’s a lifeline for us. It makes school functional for him, whereas it wouldn’t be otherwise. They help him participate and communicate with school activities and with the educational part too, communicating with his iPad. It helps him to learn to go to public places.”

The outing also showcased the sensitive alertness of teachers and staff. One student stood up from his seat at Wendy’s and went to the napkins on the other side of the room. Suddenly, teacher April Clark and two others came from all corners of the room, sprang into action to hover near the student, and yet were able to approach him with a gentle patience.

“Yeah we know em,” said Clark.

At another juncture, the whole group sang Happy Birthday to Clark, and instantly another staff member got out a pair of headphones for a student who was just starting to get upset. Problem solved.

When asked why teachers choose this work, Clark said, “Because we love it. We all love seeing the progress they are making.”

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