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If schools had remained open in April, the ELCO School District faculty would have marked World Autism Awareness Day—and, in Pennsylvania, Autism Acceptance Month—by going blue on April 8.

But, because the spread of COVID-19 led to a statewide shutdown of schools in Pennsylvania, the event never occurred. In fact, according to district superintendent Julia Vicente, special t-shirts the faculty had prepared were still being sorted and were left behind in the empty school buildings when the shutdown was ordered.

“So, instead of wearing the special shirts, we are going to wear blue this coming Friday,” Vicente said in a recent email.

Blue, she explained, is the color associated with autism acceptance, and the “light it up blue” campaign for “a kinder, more inclusive world.”

So, she eagerly agreed to a plan by one ELCO teacher to mark the day from home.

Robin Anne Kimmey is a district behavior specialist and internal coach for Eastern Lebanon’s autism support classrooms at Fort Zeller Elementary School and ELCO Intermediate School.

“Every April we celebrate autism acceptance,” Kimmey said during a telephone interview Tuesday.

“It’s about diversity awareness,” she said. “It’s also about providing support for the teachers, and to give them more knowledge for working with students with autism.”

Kimmey said the district holds a monthly fundraiser—”dress down for a cause” day, usually on the second Friday—for various charities, such as a local food bank or cancer research. Participating staff members make a small cash donation and get to wear casual clothes for the day.

For the past few years, she said, April has been reserved for Autism Speaks, a national autism advocacy organization that sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities.

“It’s really about getting the word out,” she said. “That autism matters.”

Although teachers now have limited contact with their students—phone calls, video chats and emails, mostly— Kimmey said they decided to wear something blue (or t-shirts from previous years, if they have them) and make signs to show their support on Friday.

Friday is not a school day, she noted.

“Friday is a staff development day. We come together through Zoom meetings,” she explained. “Everyone is going to have their signs and be wearing their colors. We’re going to take screen shots on Zoom and share them with students and the community. … We basically just want to show our support of autism in the community.”

Vicente said photos from the day will be shared on social media.

“I think it’s important to bring attention to the students and to the programs we have here at ELCO,” Kimmey said. “The administration is very supportive of all of our autism programs. People really get involved.”

In fact, she said, Pennsylvania was the first state to shift from an “autism awareness” campaign to “autism acceptance,” she said, courtesy of a declaration signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018.

It’s not enough just to be aware of the autism spectrum disorder, Kimmey explained. People who are on the spectrum deserve to be accepted into daily life.

At ELCO, she said, the district maintains two autism support classrooms and an itinerant autism support teacher for students who are on the spectrum but have been placed among the general school population.

Now that students are being kept at home, she said, parents are dealing with a break in routine that, for students on the spectrum, can be very disruptive.

“That was a challenge,” Kimmey said. “Routine, a structured setting—that’s a very big aspect of the verbal behavior program.”

Education service agency Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 did not respond to requests for comment on the disruption of routine for students coping with an autism spectrum disorder.

Kimmey said ELCO has tried to provide plenty of support for parents who now have their students home full-time, without access to the school’s resources.

“It’s an issue for a lot of students,” she said. “So we’ve tried to support our students in a lot of different ways, providing very specific instructions and coaching the parents on how to do things. There’s a lot of communication by phone and through the programs we’re using.”

They’ve also provided support, she said, such as creating checklists for families to follow at home, as well as guidance on how to set up a student’s work area and schedule activities.

“We’ve tried to help them create a new routine at home,” she said.

Each week, Kimmey added, “we ask the parents what was successful for them that week, and what they had problems with. It’s hard to transfer the program over to a virtual format, but our autism support teachers are amazing.”

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Read more coverage of how Lebanon County schools are responding to coronavirus shutdowns

Tom Knapp

Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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