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Empowering Students with Autism

Empowering Students with Autism


As a small child, Farah Khraishi remembers her younger brother, Abdullah, learning to pronounce words…including her name.

“He used to call me, ‘Farah.’ All of a sudden, at the age of two, he would start to call me ‘FaFa.’ Then it got worse and worse until the point where he couldn’t really say anything at all,” she recalled. “So when my mom saw that change, she obviously got freaked out. She took him to doctors and they diagnosed him.”

Susan Quail noticed that her second son was not advancing physically. “He couldn’t throw the ball the way a two-year-old might do when playing outside,” she recalled. “He had low muscle tone and was a late talker.”

An occupational therapist helped him with his physical development, but it was not until a speech therapist started working with Peter that they learned there was more to his challenges. He was diagnosed with a pervasive development disorder. “I didn’t want to believe it,” his mother recalled.

Student drawing on paper with a rulerThe pervasive development disorder that challenged these families is autism. After the initial shock and years of seeking help for their children to develop language, learn to behave like other children their age and locate a safe, nurturing environment, they faced uncertainty again. The safe havens provided by public school programs were no longer options because their children had “aged out.”

“For most parents of children with autism, graduation day is both a joyous occasion and the scariest time of your life,” said O.W. Petcoff, whose 19-year-old son, Desmond, graduated from Arlington High School in 2015. “So, it was so good to find this opportunity and this venue. Now my college student will be able to come to college and have that experience, but still learn about things he needed to learn pertaining to autism.”

The opportunity and venue Petcoff mentions can be found at TCC’s Southeast Campus. After numerous parents seeking educational opportunities for their adult children with autism approached Carrie Tunson, vice president for Community & Industry Education at the Southeast Campus, she and her team got busy. What began with extensive research eventually resulted in the development of TCC’s Autism Syndrome Disorder (ASD) program.

“You listen to what the community says. That’s one of the beauties of what we do in CIE. You listen when people begin to talk. You have to be a trailblazer, willing to take those gambles that other folks would not take,” said Tunson, who developed the first special needs courses for the College more than 20 years ago. “I’m fortunate to be able have dedicated staff such as Nita Haliburton to handle the details necessary to give life to an initiative such as this one and keep it running.”

Perhaps the most noticeable traits of a person who has high-performing autism syndrome disorder are inappropriate responses and behavior. They often do not make eye contact or abruptly begin talking about unrelated topics.

“We really focus on socialization skills for them. When I did my research, I discovered that many of them finish college. But if they have not developed those socialization skills, many of them would not be able to do jobs because their supervisors don’t take the time to understand them.”

Carrie Tunson

Terry Smith’s desire to improve his skills in these areas attracted the four-year university student to enroll in TCC’s autism syndrome disorder class, while he was pursuing his degree in computer science at The University of Texas at Arlington. Smith said he learned about the program from the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). According to its website, DARS administers programs that ensure Texas is a state where people with disabilities, and children who have developmental delays, enjoy the same opportunities as other Texans to live independent and productive lives.

A student using a ruler to trace on paper“I enrolled to help me better prepare for a work environment,” said Smith, who graduated in May with a B.S. in computer science. “I learned how to communicate with a person. They helped me to get along with my family better.”

Chris Templeton, adjunct professor for the classes, said it is important for him and adjunct instructor Kim Newsome to build rapport with the students so they feel comfortable openly discussing critical issues.

“We’re dealing with sensitive subjects here. Things we take for granted that we’ve learned quickly throughout our whole life, they struggle to understand,” said Templeton, whose older brother has ASD.

For Newsome, satisfaction comes when she connects with students through her teaching. “I see them changing in the classroom. They are sitting there and then all of a sudden you’ll see their face light up. They’ll lean in and really take in what’s going on. When I see a change in them, that’s the most important thing to me,” Newsome said.

“We see the most growth in them asking for help, making friends, going to class on time and setting goals. All these things that we take for granted, that we know. We are solidifying for them.”

Chris Templeton

“Many of those students may be successful if they just have that nudge. They are not really ready for regular college, but this is the bridge that gets them prepared,” said Tunson, who believes the autism classes are vital to students’ futures. “So we just give them that nudge that they need to get to the next level in their lives.”

Family members have observed changes as their loved ones journey to their next levels.

“Well, I have noticed that he has actually become a little more engaging and he has become more socially aware. He thinks more before he talks. Now, I feel like what he talks about actually has meaning and depth behind it,” Farah said of her brother. “He thinks before he acts. Whereas before he would just kind of talk about really random things that really had nothing to do with anything. So that’s definitely been a good thing.”

Quail, who said she is glad that her 20-year-old son enrolled in the class, is hoping that the program will be extended past the Autism I and Autism II classes to a two-year program. “With options, these children have a great future,” Quail said. “It may not be your typical future, but they have a great future.”