- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) - Athens Intermediate School has a new sensory room for students with autism spectrum disorders.

Jessica Lynn, special education coordinator for Athens City Schools, said 28 students across the 5,000-student system have an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

The causes of ASD are not well understood, but the number of children who fall on the spectrum is growing, according to Lynn.

“We truly do have more incidence of it,” she said.

The World Health Organization reported in January that one in 160 children have an autism spectrum disorder. ASD encompasses a range of conditions characterized by some degree of impaired social behavior and communication, a narrow range of interests and hypersensitivity to certain stimuli.

The sensory room at Athens Intermediate is the brainchild of Stacey Givens, whose 9-year-old son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3.

With community support, Givens raised money to build a sensory room at Brookhill Elementary School after discovering that sensory therapy was beneficial for her son.

She raised $3,000 with contributions from groups such as Athens Rotary, the Ladies Civitan Club and the Athens City Schools Foundation Board, to build the sensory room at Athens Intermediate, where her son will begin school next year.

Givens’ goal is to build a sensory room at every elementary school and eventually expand the program through high school. She already is raising money to build one at Julian Newman Elementary.

“It is not something that these children outgrow,” she said.

Inside the sensory room, the walls are painted blue, because research shows it has a calming effect. The room has a crash pad and wall pads to prevent injury.

“You have a lot of kids who feel the need to throw themselves into things,” Givens said.

Overhead ultraviolet lighting is replaced with dim blue lighting. According to special education teacher Laurie Viers, some students with autism spectrum disorders are hypersensitive to ultraviolet lighting and can even hear the bulbs when others cannot.

The room, a former workroom for teachers, is full of tactile and visual activities designed to either expend pent-up anxiety or energize them for classroom work.

During a tour last week, some students bounced, some swung, and others ran their fingers through gel beads or played with glowing, fiber-optic strands hanging from the wall. There is space for four students at a time.

“It’s all the things that would not be productive in a classroom, but they can come in here, get it out of their system and then go back to the classroom to be productive,” Givens said.

The time students spend in the room depends on their needs. The goal is to proactively head off anxiety that could be disruptive in class, Viers said.

“It can happen if something has upset them and they are not able to communicate it. This gives them an outlet,” she said.

Givens said she needs to raise $3,000 to $4,000 for a similar room at Julian Newman and hopes to upgrade a sensory room at Athens Elementary, as well as add one for James L. Cowart Elementary.

The push comes as the city moves to add more inclusive facilities for children, opening a wheelchair accessible playground earlier this year.

While touring the sensory room recently, Mayor Ronnie Marks said he hopes to expand the playground.

“It’s just too important,” he said.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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