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Liberty Ridge students experience first-hand what it means to be autistic
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news Woodbury, 55125
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

Among elementary students, there are some common misconceptions regarding their classmates who have autism - they can't learn, they can't control their behavior and they're different.

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Liberty Ridge Elementary, which is a designated District 833 autism site, is taking steps to break down some of those stereotypes.

Last week, Liberty Ridge's autism center set up "sensory stations" for the entire school population where they experienced some of the difficulties students with autism experience on a daily basis.

"We really wanted to get the rest of the school involved and educated and aware of what it is," said Nicole Felipe, one of Liberty Ridge's autism specialists. "Just because students have autism doesn't mean they have to be different or separated from anyone else."

Sensory overload

Autism is a disorder of the brain associated with the processing and development of it, Felipe said.

Autism affects many areas of a person's behavior including social interaction, communication, comprehension and sensory overload.

Felipe said she and the other autism specialists decided to set up the sensory stations to demonstrate sensory overload to truly show students what it means to be autistic.

"It's one thing to hear and be educated that way, but it's another thing to have that hands on experience," Felipe said. "They're able to put themselves in that perspective."

Felipe said last school week, which began on April 30, was a perfect time to do it since April is Autism Awareness Month.

Students experienced five different sensory stations where they participated in different activities.

The first station, which had students wear large gloves while trying to string beads, demonstrated how those with autism struggle with fine motor activity and how trying to get their hands to do what they want can be a challenge, Felipe said.

The second station, which had students jumping rope with yarn, demonstrated how those with autism struggle with body coordination, primarily hand and eye coordination.

Students also participated in two different activities to demonstrate tactile activity, or difficulties when it comes to touch.

The first activity had students walk around in a bucket of rice to experience the feeling below their feet. Many people with autism struggle with coarse objects and how they feel against their skin.

The second activity had students look through a pair of binoculars while trying to keep their balance and walk along a straight line.

Students read and wrote sentences at the fourth station while wearing smeared and scratched goggles, in order demonstrate an autism student's difficulty with visual activity.

The final station allowed students to interact with various sensory equipment that autism students frequently use, like weighted vests and ear phones.

In addition to the sensory stations, Liberty Ridge autism specialists also visited classrooms last week for other sensory activities and tests - such as writing with their non-dominant hand, speaking in a voice disguiser, wearing three-dimensional glasses, using distractions such as a feather duster or flashing lights - in order to demonstrate other sensory overload difficulties.

Liberty Ridge fourth grader Caroline Nickoloff said the sensory activities were eye opening for her.

"It was kind of cool to really understand how autistic kids feel," she said. "It seems hard for them."

Gaining understanding and acceptance

Felipe said the biggest benefit of setting up sensory stations such as this is that it really teaches students that their classmates who have autism aren't different.

"We want them to get the understanding that children with autism want to be accepted, they want to feel like they are part of it," Felipe said.

Additionally, Felipe said experiencing the sensory stations can also help students better understand how they can help.

"They want to help, but sometimes when they think they're helping, they're really hurting," she said.

Felipe said the goal is to celebrate Autism Awareness Month every year by setting up the sensory stations.

"Each year we'll be adding something more, something different, to give a better understanding for the kids," she said.

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