West Valley City • On a cold Thursday in late January, parents, kids with autism and their siblings gathered in three Whittier Elementary School rooms for dinner, fun and education.
The 30 families are part of the Granite School District's Autism Parent Support Group, a second-year program funded by a federal grant designed to prevent child abuse that is administered by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.
"I would dare to use the word vital," said Andrea Brown of Magna, about the programs, which are held 12 times a year.
Her third-grade son, Andrew, has been diagnosed with autism.
"Emotionally, as bad as this may sound, this gives me two hours I can absorb information and have someone else watch them," she said.
"Them" includes Andrew and a non-autistic younger brother. During the classes, Andrew joins kids with autistic spectrum diagnoses in one room while his 4-year-old brother attends a meeting for siblings. All the participants receive dinner. The program has become so popular that Tanya Semerad, elementary special-education autism specialist for the Granite School District, said there is a waiting list of families who want to join.
Autism affects a person's communication skills and social abilities. Hallmarks of autism include repetitive behavior patterns such as rocking and hand movements.
Semerad said the sessions combine support groups and training, giving parents a chance to hear expert speakers who give them information to help their kids become more successful.
"It is tied to the schools," she said. "It is proactive to educate parents on strategies for helping their kids be successful. We rely on the parents to educate us. They know their kids better than anybody else. This is about sharing and supporting each other."
Some class topics include community resources, sensory issues and strategies, behavior management, communication strategies, sibling support, working with the school team, individual education plans and special education. Much of the curriculum comes from the ABC's of Autism developed by Utah State University.
"Behavior issues are probably one of the biggest concerns for parents with kids who have autism and with teachers working with those kids," Semerad said. "They often express their frustration with inappropriate behaviors. They don't understand wants or needs. They don't understand the social rules of the world around them. These are behaviors that are very frustrating. They can get violent, say inappropriate things, run off or can't speak."
Susan Gale, of Kearns, knows much about autism. She is the mom of three children with autism, two of whom are considered high-functioning and the other with a "severe" diagnosis. She is part of a committee that helps plan the sessions in order to help parents.
"Parents of children with special needs feel so isolated," said Gale. "They think they are the only one with a child who would do that. You come here and hear the stories and hear other people and think 'oh my gosh, this isn't just me.' There is a special bond knowing that someone gets it. You can tell a story that your kid who is 8 went to the bathroom by himself and it means something."
Heidi Valdez, who administers the program for DCFS, said the classes help families build parental resiliency, social connections, concrete support of needs, knowledge of parenting and child development.
"There are five consistent things that will prevent child abuse and neglect," she said, adding that prevention programs such as the autism support groups help address some of these factors so child abuse does not occur. "We want to empower parents with knowledge and have them become advocates for kids when they go into a meeting with a school."
Gale has nothing but praise for everyone at Granite School District who has worked with her kids.
"I love all the teachers and special educators I have worked with," she said. "I have not had to have fights. They have wrapped their arms around me. It is something I appreciate. I've had the support."
Andrew Brown, the third-grade son of Andrea Brown, seemed fascinated with a photographer's camera. He mugged for it, smiled and fired off questions and comments. He said he likes to play football at Magna Elementary and enjoys playing tag with his little brother.
"Kids with autism have to be taught social rules and expectations just like typical kids have to be taught math and how to read," said Semerad. "Typical kids pick that up. Kids must be explicitly taught, over and over, so nothing can be inferred.
Julia Hood, a psychologist with the Granite School District who works with the siblings of autistic children, tries to teach them to identify their own emotions, frustrations, joys, things they love and things that drive them crazy.
"We try to teach them to express that in a healthy and safe way," said Hood. "It's OK to feel frustration with siblings. We are giving them a safe place to talk about all of their experiences."
Gale enjoys hearing stories from other parents.
"Being able to hear success stories gives you hope," she said. "It's about taking the little achievements and relishing those. A step forward is better than being stationary and much better than going backward."