LEXINGTON — A lunchtime balloon launch April 2 at Lexington High School marked the kickoff of Autism Awareness Month for Lexington Public Schools.

The event was organized by a group of parents to raise awareness about a bio-neurological development disability that affects the lives of their children and many others. Autism affects the development of the brain in areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function.

Statistics indicate that 1 in 88 children now have autism, which is consistent when compared with the Lexington Public Schools student population, said high school teacher Dianne Karges, who works with three special needs students, two of whom have autism.

Another 10 high school students with autism attend regular classes, including three seniors who are headed to college. Karges said the term autism spectrum disorder is used to indicate there are a wide range of needs and abilities. Many people are highly intelligent and high functioning, while some don’t even speak.

At last week’s launch, each balloon had a message attached to it: “April is Autism Awareness Month. Be informed. Lexington High School, Lexington, Nebraska.”

“It’s the first year we (parents) are making people aware of autism,” Liliana Flores de Roman said through an interpreter. “We are happy about all the people that are involved. They (students who have autism or a similar disorder) are not alone. They have their family and friends.”

Karges said the parents met at the school two weeks ago to plan how to raise awareness. They made 70 pins to distribute to all high school staff, and Karges will send out informational emails to high school staff throughout the month.

Awareness might be letting teachers know how to help a seemingly disorganized student break a task into steps or helping a teacher evaluate the sensory stimulation in a classroom. Some students benefit from diffused lighting or calm low-level background music, Karges said.

“They say if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. They are all unique,” Karges said.

Karges said her job is interesting because it is fascinating to try to grasp how an individual mind works and what to do to help. There are unique challenges with the non-verbal students. They use pictures with Velcro attached to them to communicate in a method known as Picture Exchange Communication System.

Each of Karges’ students has a workbox with tasks fitted to their needs. Picture cards are used to show the day’s schedule, from start to finish, to help a student not feel overwhelmed.

Students are taught life skills such as how to do laundry, dusting and vacuuming. They also go out in public for practice. Each student has shown personal improvement, including in the ability to get out in public and in handling change, Karges said.

A Nebraska Autism Conference is Wednesday and Thursday in Kearney. Lexington teachers Lori Pflaster and Kellie Cetak and occupational therapist Jenny Daup will give a presentation called “Classroom Sensory Interventions 101.”

They said they hope to help participants understand sensory systems and how to identify over-responsiveness or under-responsiveness so they may help students.

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