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Understanding autism: TUSD, families work together for individual education program

Understanding autism: TUSD, families work together for individual education program

Turlock Junior High student Steven Shamgochian enjoys golf, which has been an excellent motivator for him to focus on school work.


POSTED February 3, 2014 5:00 p.m.

Steven Shamgochian is a student at Turlock Junior High School, has a killer golf swing and recently raised over $2,000 by recycling to give back to the community. He is also autistic.

Steven and his family are only one of the over 200 families affected by autism to which the Turlock Unified School District supplies services. Autism is the fastest growing serious development disorder in the United States that affects 1 in 88 children, a 10-fold increase in the last 40 years according to Autism Speaks, a leading science and advocacy organization. The disorder is typically detected in early development where signs such as a lack of communication skills and social responsiveness indicate a child’s removed nature which is a hallmark of autism. While the disorder is typically marked by impaired cognition, there is a vast scale on which to measure autism as the intellectual and social capabilities of individuals can vary greatly.

Autism is more prevalent in males than females but the disorder does not discriminate as it affects over two million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. Since autism is typically detected in children during the developmental stages between infanthood and the age of three, early intervention is imperative when tackling the often obscure nature of autism.

 “Between the age of one and three, I started noticing differences in Steven’s development that I did not notice in his older sister. Fortunately, I had already had another child to recognize that he was not hitting those milestones, like crawling and walking, when his sister did so that was a red flag,” said Steven’s mother, Amy Shamgochian.  

Autism is an individualized disorder and the severity can differ greatly from case to case, but there is a path taken by most families in TUSD. Parents typically take their child to a physician once developmental issues are detected and physicians then recommend parents take their child to a regional center that works with children with disabilities. However, a positive diagnosis of autism at the regional center does not guarantee that a child will require educational services due to nuances that segregate the medical and educational verdicts.

“There is a difference between an autism diagnosis and disability in the medical field versus the educational field. When you’re assessing a student for autism outside of school, you may be looking at a whole host of variables whereas with education, we’re looking at how autism affects their educational performance,” said Jeff Santos, TUSD director of special education. “We still take that medical assessment into consideration, we’re not going to dismiss it, but we do our own educational assessment as well.”

Once a child is diagnosed as autistic by the District, an Individualize Educational Program is put together by a multidisciplinary team of adults, including specialists, teachers and parents, to create a plan that includes objectives and goals tailored to that child’s needs. TUSD also offers two school sites with autistic classes for kindergarten through second graders at Wakefield Elementary and Crowell Elementary. After second grade, students are placed in classrooms according to their needs, whether that be integration into traditional classrooms or more general special education classes.

After testing the waters in a traditionally educated kindergarten class at Julien Elementary, Steven transferred to Crowell Elementary where he attended class through second grade before he moved onto a specially educated class at Cunningham Elementary. Now in a learning handicap class at Turlock Junior High School, Steven receives the necessary attention for academic learning that he needs but also has the opportunity to integrate into the traditionally educated arena in physical education and his elective course.

“Turlock Junior High School has tried very hard to mainstream students for at least a little bit of their day and it has been excellent for Steven. Not only does he get to see what general education students do, but they get to see him and there is a spirit of compassion and caring I’ve been really surprised to see,” said Shamgochian.

TUSD aims to bring more understanding and awareness about autism to parents and community members through its monthly special education parenting class series.  An “Understanding the World of Autism” workshop will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Thursday at the Professional Development Center at eCademy Charter at Crane located at 1100 Cahill Dr. An evening session will also be held from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the District Office in classrooms WW5 and WW7 located at 1574 East Canal Dr.

The workshop is free and features classroom teachers and autism and behavioral specialists. Snacks will be provided and child care is available for the night session. Spanish interpreters are available upon request. Those interested can RSVP to the Special Education office at 667-8519 noting which session they will be attending. Parents with general questions regarding autism are also encouraged to call the Special Education office.

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