“Having a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum can be gut-wrenching,” said Dr. Paula Furr, professor and head of the Department of Education Leadership and Technology in Northwestern State’s College of Education and Human Development. “I can’t understate the worry and fears and challenges. I can, however, say that no parent can do this alone. You need family support, therapeutic support, school support, and spiritual or other personal support. You must learn to advocate for your child and hope that one day the child, depending upon level of severity, will be able to be his or her own advocate and recognize that the ability in disability is what defines him or her.”
Dr. Furr and her son Taylor Furr, 22, spoke to the Washington Parish School System’s Autism Team recently to share the perspectives of a parent and a student and lessons learned from personal experience. Their presentation, “Taylor’s Tips,” offers ways to help students be successful in school and elsewhere. The two will speak at a state conference on autism in New Orleans this September. Dr. Furr hopes to educate others about exceptionalities and encourage teachers to act with compassion and understanding.
“Great teachers not only know about individual differences, differentiated instruction, universal design and so on, they believe in and practice effective teaching strategies for all children,” Dr. Furr said. “Patience and forgiveness are required. These children can anger and enchant you, sometimes within moments. They can sense quickly whether you like them or not. Your influence often determines whether the child succeeds not just in your class but in their overall school and life success. I cannot thank those teachers enough who believed in my child and to whom he and we owe all.”
Asperger's Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that is milder than autism, but shares many of its characteristics. A major characteristic of children with AS is an obsessive interest in a single subject that can lead to the child becoming an expert on a variety of topics. The national prevalence rate of Asperger’s/Autism diagnoses is currently one out of every 110 and is four times more likely to occur in boys than girls.
Individuals with Asperger’s often have trouble reading social cues and recognizing other people's feelings. They may have strange movements and mannerisms that when combined with other effects make it difficult for them to make friends. Their treatment focuses on three main symptoms: poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines and physical clumsiness.
Taylor Furr was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (AS) as a third grader. During middle school, he focused on developing academic strengths and social skills with the help of understanding teachers, but high school was challenging and he coped with feelings of isolation and heightened awareness of his exceptionalities. After graduating from Alexandria Senior High, Furr completed the TOPS curriculum and enrolled in Northwestern State through the Summer Bridge program that helps students transition from high school to college. He is pursuing a degree in general studies with a concentration in mass communications. He is the public service announcement/public relations director at Northwestern State’s campus radio station, KNWD, and hosts a radio show, “Gamer Tracks.”
“I'd say that my area of expertise would be digital media; mainly editing video and audio. I'm also handy with using Windows 7, basic system care, and I'm a fast learner with new software. I've also been experimenting with 3D animation and customization of computer hardware,” he said.
Taylor Furr said there is more understanding about Asperger’s in the university setting and his mother agreed that several professors have made a positive impact with their assistance and encouragement.
At Northwestern State, students like Taylor can tap resources available through the university’s Office of Disability Support, which coordinates accommodations for students with disabilities.
“We provide additional time on exams, free tutoring and help with study skills and time management,” said Catherine Faucheaux, ODS director. “We do anything we can to help the student become successful in both academic and non-academic settings.”
"Students with Asperger’s Syndrome have islands of intelligence," said Dr. Furr, "but can remain isolated on their islands without early intervention and continued support." Dr. Furr recognizes the positives of Asperger's, but she realizes that it must be diagnosed and treated properly.
According to Dr. Barbara Duchardt, professor of special education in Northwestern State’s College of Education and Human Development, early diagnosis and intervention are keys to supporting a child with Asperger’s Syndrome and parents can request a free evaluation through their school or parish. The evaluation is required by law through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Teachers and families of children with Asperger’s syndrome should learn as much as possible about Asperger’s and seek support from school personnel, counselors and speech and occupational therapists, as well as parish coordinators of special education, diagnosticians and regional or community services, such a Families Helping Families, Duchardt said.
“Create an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with the team and be respectful of each other’s concerns,” Duchardt said. “Communication and collaboration are important in the creative problem-solving and decision-making process.
“Identify the child’s strengths and then work on areas to improve, such as communication, social skills, daily living skills, academic skill or behavior skills,” Duchardt said. “Find out how the child learns best, develop a routine and be consistent. Identify what is working and not working on a regular basis and make changes when necessary. Celebrate success.”
“We were fortunate to have Dr. Duchardt’s expertise, guidance and concern during Taylor's K-12 and now college experience,” Dr. Furr said. “I wish all teachers had the opportunity or sought to take special education courses at Northwestern State as in all classrooms such knowledge is crucial to help all students learn.”
Northwestern State offers on-line add-on certifications, Master’s and Specialists degrees in special education including early intervention, mild/moderate for elementary, middle and high school, and educational diagnostician, as well as gifted education.
For more information on Tyler’s Tips, contact Dr. Furr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on Northwestern State’s special education programs in early intervention, mild/moderate and education diagnostician, contact Duchardt at (318) 357-5154 or e-mail email@example.com. For more information on Northwestern State’s programs in gifted education, contact Dr. Paula Christensen at (318) 357-5524 or e-mail Christensen@nsula.edu. To contact Families Helping Families, Regions 6 and 7, call (318) 226-4541 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.