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Group’s goal is helping the public understand autism

Thirteen-year-old Sierra Bell of Osawatomie, Kan., showed Rachel Ward and her sons Aiden, 7, and Caleb, 3, all of Louisburg, Kan., how to make calming bottles with soap and glitter.
Thirteen-year-old Sierra Bell of Osawatomie, Kan., showed Rachel Ward and her sons Aiden, 7, and Caleb, 3, all of Louisburg, Kan., how to make calming bottles with soap and glitter. Special to The Star

When you hear loud noises or see bright lights, it can be distracting to anyone. When you’re on the autism spectrum, a minor annoyance to anyone else can be much more uncomfortable.

That’s what CHASE, or the Community Help for Autism Spectrum Everywhere, is trying to demonstrate with its Sensorium events.

The Sensorium features a variety of different booths, each geared toward either understanding a different type of sensory overload or toward how to help calm someone experiencing related difficulties.

For its most recent event in late July, the organization partnered with the Lakemary Center in Paola, Kan. But the organization has held these events at a variety of schools in the area.

At one booth at the Sensorium at Lakemary, participants could pull on sleeves made of a scratchy material to see how uncomfortable fabric could distract someone. Another had people put marshmallows in their mouths, then try to talk to illustrate speech difficulties.

Students from Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies helped create some of the booths, including an iPad app demonstrating sound overload in a classroom and a light board to show how certain lights can be distracting.

CHASE, based in Olathe, is a nonprofit that serves the entire area and focuses on helping people understand high-functioning people with autism.

One big obstacle families who have a child with autism face is when people around them don’t understand what their kids are experiencing.

“We’ve been laughed at in public,” said Amy Wilkinson, executive director of CHASE. “We’ve been asked to leave. It’s amazing what you see from the public when they don’t understand.”

The aim of the Sensorium to give “typical people” the chance to experience what different overload situations might feel like to someone on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

“It’s extremely interesting to know what children with sensory disorders — how it feels, how they react to it,” said Betty Wessel of Paola, who attended the Sensorium at Lakemary. “I’ve never had this type of information given to me. It gives me an insight into what they have to go through.”

School can be difficult when people don’t understand what makes someone with autism behave in a particular way.

“It looks behavioral in the classroom,” Wilkinson said. “Bright lights may bother them; loud sounds may bother them. So, we’re trying to teach people that there’s a reason for all that (behavior). … It’s teaching them that you’re sitting in a classroom, and you’ve got a friend who can’t handle this, and this is what it feels like.”

Wilkinson said her own son was bullied for years as a result of his autism.

“My son looks like everyone else,” she said. “He’s expected to act like everyone else when he can’t. People call him weird.”

After her organization gave a presentation to his class at school, everything changed.

“We did an initial presentation for 75 fourth-graders, and we went from kids bullying him to doing a 180, and they were asking the counselor if they were talking to him right,” she said. “He’ll be in seventh grade this year, and those very kids still support him now.”

For each presentation, CHASE customizes the content to discuss the issues that a specific student with autism in that classroom experiences.

“We can’t blanket-talk about these kiddos,” Wilkinson said. “They’re all so different.”

Usually, it’s the parent who approaches CHASE about having the presentation, and Wilkinson said the parents are very involved with creating the presentation.

“We talk about the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. We bring it out in the open, then we tell the kiddos the cool things their friend can do… and how to be a better friend to someone with autism,” she said.

On the Web

For more information on Community Help for Autism Spectrum Everywhere, visit chasekc.org.

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