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SHS autism program offers students value

The Autism Spectrum Disorder Program at Superior High School has grown by more than tenfold in the past 10 years. 

In September 2004, one teacher and one paraprofessional worked with two ninth grade students in a single room. This January, the program had grown to encompass three rooms, 30 students, six paraprofessionals and two teachers, James Starzynski and Dan Schulz.

What has remained the same, Starzynski said, is the emphasis on inclusion, developing skills and preparing for careers beyond high school through long-term relationships.

“We’re privileged in that way, to have them for a long period of time,” he said. Structure and sameness are key as staff help students learn to deal with anxiety.

Similar to the program for students with cognitive disorders, the district strives to tailor the autism program to individual needs, said Kathy Hinders, director of special education for the district. And the heart of it, Starzynski said, is that human relationship.

Students with autism spectrum disorders spend as much time in mainstream classrooms as possible. At the high school level, classmates also work one-on-one with them through the peer mentor program.

Superior senior Anna Lurndal spent a semester as a peer mentor. Although she has coached Special Olympics athletes in gymnastics, she hadn’t worked with students with autism before. The senior was struck by the wide range of individuals she met.

“I loved it,” Lurndal said. “I loved hearing the stories they have, the remarks they had, you never know what to expect.” It helped her appreciate the world in new ways, and she encouraged other students to spend a semester as a peer mentor.

“I would just tell them that it’s definitely an experience you’ll never forget,” said Lurndal, who plans to pursue a career in special education.

The emphasis on inclusion has impacted all the students.

“I feel like our school does a really great job of respecting special needs kids,” Lurndal said. “I never see bullying and even if you don’t know them you say ‘Hi,’ say ‘Thank you.’”

The district is working with a national expert on evidence-based practices in the area of autism, said Hinders. The grant-funded effort, now in its second year, has led to the creation of a new position to help align programming from kindergarten through 12th grade for the 72 students district-wide with autism spectrum disorders.

“I think we have a lot of good teachers who work with the kids,” Hinders said. “This has ramped them up.”

Graduates from the autism program work as close as Superior and as far away as Alaska; they have successfully attended the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College and Lake Superior College. They work in child care, social service agencies and custodial services. They drive cars or take buses; live at home, on their own and group homes; they are musicians in local bands and orchestras.

Former students were encouraged to share their memories of the autism program via letter. Those who responded said high school was very stressful, but staff and the ability to go to the program room when they felt overloaded helped them deal with it. They said the social structure and skills they learned helped them become more comfortable in public and make friends.

“Thank you for all your support during my four years at SHS,” one student wrote.

“Mr. Schulz, you helped me through the hardest point of my life,” wrote another. “Thank you.”

Starzynski expressed thanks to parents, teachers, paraprofessionals and administrative staff who have helped the autism program grow over the last 10 years.