Millions of Americans are living with autism and Hawaii is no exception. It’s a complex disorder that can cause difficulties, impairments and isolation.
The Windward Oahu school district is home to 209 students with autism and six-year-old Luke Letoto is one of them. He struggles to speak, but is making progress at Ahuimanu Elementary, the only public school in the state recognized for excellence in autism and developmental disorders.
“We’ve been very fortunate to see a lot of progress in him,” said Letoto’s father, Brandon Letoto.
Out of the seven autistic students at Ahuimanu, school officials say all of them are showing positive changes and more than half have completely stopped problem behaviors like swearing, hitting and screaming.
“We had students who were completely non-verbal that would drop to the ground when they wanted to request something,” said district education specialist Dr. Aletha Sutton. “We have students now that are speaking in sentences.”
Teachers from across the state are heading back to class to receive extensive training at this school on how to plan interaction, communication and reading and writing for special education students.
“Normal classrooms basically instruct the whole classroom and here, we break it down small steps,” Dr. Sutton said. “They get to see it, they do it and then they practice it and go back into their classroom and work with their students that have autism and they get specific feedback and coaching.”
But the teachers aren’t the only ones making a difference.
Part of the program that’s proving successful is taking students from the general education program and having them work as peer mediators and peer educators in the special education program.
“(It trains) the peers to have empathy for students on the spectrum and to understand why they are doing what they are doing and help them,” Dr. Sutton said.
So far, 65 local teachers have taken the training from this school and several other public schools have been named official intensive training sites for autism disorders.