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Understanding Autism and Bridging Relationships at Dublin Elementary School

April 28, 2013

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Sensory Room 1Autism. Just the word itself can cause angst and confusion for a parent. Autism is a developmental disorder that generally appears within the first three years of life. It is a physical condition that is linked to an abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. For those that are diagnosed, it affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. The term autism is one of the three conditions recognized across a wider spectrum. The other disorders include Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the incidence of Autism is approximately 20 per 1,000 in the United States in 2012. While it is unclear whether these numbers are rising, the ability to diagnose the condition has improved dramatically in the last two decades. We chose to share these facts to highlight the fact that April is Autism Awareness Month and to also spotlight a remarkable week of activities that recently concluded at Dublin Elementary School.

Pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade students that are diagnosed with these disorders and living within the Dublin Unified School District (DUSD) are enrolled at a specific program at Dublin Elementary School. The Language and Social Skills (LASS) program is housed in a classroom in the northwest portion of the campus. That location was recently converted into a “sensory room” – for the benefit of the entire school population. The goal was to have each and every classroom cycle through the lab and visit individual stations that would help the students better understand the types of sensory integration issues students with autism may have. The goal was completed as kindergarten through fifth graders each had their opportunity to experience the lab over a two-day period.

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Sensory Room Station 1Seven stations were assembled. At one end of the room, students were asked to assemble a Mr. Potato head – while a strobe light was flashing in their eyes, thus highlighting sensitivity to light. In another area, they were asked to neatly write their names with a pencil while wearing a ski glove. This exercise demonstrated the disconnection between what one can mentally pursue versus what their faculties would allow them to accomplish. And, in another corner, they were asked to steady themselves on an unbalanced disk while threading a bead through a string. Class after class came through the lab and the kids were completely engaged. If it created a moment of pause for them in beginning to understand the autism spectrum, it was worth it. This program would not be possible without the leadership of the two LASS teachers – Jeanne Kane and Keira Andresen. Jeanne and Keira are also supported by eight aides that support their daily work. These aides assist in maintaining a 2:1 support to student ratio. had the opportunity to sit down with both teachers to understand the genesis of this very important event.

Both instructors joined DUSD three years ago. Ms. Kane attained her B.A in English Literature from Stony Brook University in New York. She also achieved a M.A. and Early Childhood Education Certification from San Francisco State University. Jeanne teaches pre-K to Kindergarten. Ms. Andresen acquired a B.A. in Liberal Studies from California State University, Sacramento. Subsequently, she gained a Masters in Special Education from California State University, East Bay. She instructs students enrolled from Kindergarten through 2nd grade. Why was it important to create the opportunity for all students to cycle through the sensory laboratory and to gain greater awareness of autism?

DUSD Language and Social Skills Teachers Jeanne Kane and Keira AndresenKeira Andresen: “It was really raising the awareness throughout the entire campus. We wanted to drive this understanding throughout the whole school. We also understood that this might reduce any negative comments by students that simply did not comprehend what it means to be living with this condition.”

Jeanne Kane: “We also wanted to help to build an inclusive community at Dublin Elementary. All of our general education students are currently – or in the future will be – friends, classmates and future colleagues of our students with autism. We want them to have the skills and understanding of how to build those relationships.” While many of your teaching colleagues across the district are currently focusing in on preparation for STAR testing, the daily advancements that you make with your students are incremental. Please comment.

Kane: “It is fun and my co-workers are amazing. I really care about how the students have a meaningful school and social experience. For the preschoolers, it might be joining their friends while they pretend to be airplanes on the playground – that is a real blessing.”

Andresen: “Our kids are why we do what we do, why we stay late, get in early and to never stop thinking of how to improve what we do for them. It is a true joy and pleasure to be their teacher. To be honest, I think that I learn and get more joy from them than they do from me.” Any additional thoughts about your students or support staff?

Kane: “One of the hallmarks of autism is the lack of conventional social skills. The intention for social interactions may be there, but the language and skills to be consistently successful are missing. Our general education students should have support in learning how to be effective in their friendships with our students with autism.”

Andresen: “Without the wonderful women/aides that I work with everyday, this position would be a job and a very trying one at that. They are the reason so much success occurs and is our team that makes the hard days possible and the good days wonderful. Our classrooms are a true part of the Dublin Elementary family. A large part of this is because of our teachers, support staff and our Principal, Lauren McGovern.”

Friday marked the end of the weeklong celebration with a morning parade for all of the students. All were asked to dress up for Autism. They were encouraged to be a “super hero” or to “sport it up” or to wear the Autism colors of teal, blue, yellow and red. We invited Site Principal Lauren McGovern to comment upon the week’s events and their importance to the growth for all Dublin Elementary students.

Lauren McGovern - Principal - Dublin Elementary SchoolLauren McGovern: “Our goal is to provide children with the opportunity to experience the day-to-day encounters of children who have special needs – what is it like to struggle with balance, gripping a pencil and to having a heightened sensitivity to sound and smell. Additionally, our goal was to encourage children to have more empathy for people who have special needs and to build a more cohesive and inclusive community.”

It was indeed a special week at Dublin Elementary School. The energy of the LASS teachers, aides and supporting families shined an enlightening light upon the subject of autism for the entire site. salutes all of these individuals for their daily and ongoing efforts to help our community understand the nuances of this condition.

Note: Over 450 Special Education athletes from Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo counties and the Tri-Valley have been invited to participate in the second annual Bay Area School Games – Track & Field Competition. This event will be held at Acalanes High School in Lafayette on Tuesday, April 30th starting at 10:00 AM. A team from Dublin High School will participate for the second year in a row. Go to for more information.

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Month Parade (credit Keira Andresen)

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Month Parade (credit Keira Andresen)

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Project

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Project Display

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Project Display

Dublin Elementary School Autism Awareness Project Display

  1. Dan Scannell permalink
    April 29, 2013 9:24 am

    Excellent article!! Please note that the CDC ( show about 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. While the 20 in 1,000 stat cited in this article is specific to autism, I think it’s important to show that the autism spectrum is affecting many children in our communities.

  2. Becca permalink
    April 30, 2013 11:39 am

    The whole class experience noted sounds like an amazing way to show children what autism can be like. There is nothing better than a first hand experience to demonstrate a disorder like Autism. I’m an elementary education major and I’ve been trying to explore ways to deal with differences in the classroom, and this is a great way!


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