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SSU School District to celebrate Autism Month April 22

Sierra Sands Unified School District– On Saturday, April 22, Sierra Sands Unified School District will hold a free “Autism Awareness Walk,” featuring food, music, and a resource fair from 9-11 a.m. at Murray Middle School. The walk is open to the public, and the first 100 participants will receive free T-Shirts.

The event is presented by the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Community Advisory Committee — a group of advocates dedicated to finding support, accommodations, and acceptance for neurodivergent individuals.

“These kinds of activities help to create education and awareness about the importance of early diagnosis and intervention,” said Paul Delbick, SELPA director of Sierra Sands. “But this is also a celebration of individuals with unique talents and skills — often overlooked or misunderstood by the general public.”

You may have already seen posts on social media celebrating April as Autism Awareness Month. The global and national observance is dedicated to building understanding for individuals with autism — a complex diagnosis that can inhibit abilities but often comes with compensatory strengths.

The World Health Organization says that about 1 in 270 people in the world have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, a California study found that almost five percent of 4-year-olds in the state have been diagnosed. Most experts attribute that increase to growing understanding and expertise, which has made it easier to identify and diagnose.

Although the pandemic era was an excruciating challenge for students, teachers, staff, and parents across the board, the disruptions and restrictions were particularly hard for students with a greater reliance on routine and consistency.

Throughout the pandemic and continuing today, special education professionals and support systems have been hard at work to make sure students have the accommodations they need. In fact, support for autism has grown as an understanding of the disorder develops.

Melissa Moroz, who is the teacher in the autism room at Burroughs High School, said that she sees kids who are anywhere on the spectrum, from non-verbal with limited cognitive abilities to savant. There are seven who require Moroz and her support team to access the curriculum. Still, there are many more autistic students who have been integrated into the general education population with minimum adjustments and accommodations.

One of the recent additions to the program is a weekly lunch where general population students are invited into the autism room to socialize, eat pizza, and play games.

“We talk a lot about ‘autism awareness,’ but I think the next step is ‘autism acceptance.’ We need to find ways for our schools and communities to be more inclusive,” said Moroz.

“These interactions help our kids in the autism program since it’s a chance to practice skills like catching, kicking, and throwing. The neurotypical kids can be great role models who can help develop the skills that our autistic students might be working on. But it’s also a great opportunity for our visitors. They are building compassion, patience, empathy, and perspective — and getting to hang out with people who have become genuine friends.”

Typically, the students who engage most readily with autistic students are the ones who have family members or friends with a diagnosis. “Obviously, having exposure is an advantage,” said Moroz.

“But we also talk about how you can always tell which students come from Richmond Elementary School.” Richmond is where most special needs students attend, and students on the spectrum get incorporated into the campus in a special way.

“It’s great to see that our kids have this support system, but I would love to see us broaden that circle.”

Both Delbick and Moroz talked about the passion that special needs professionals bring to the youth they work with.

“I knew right away that I wanted to work in special education,” said Moroz, who was hired by the district just out of college.

“I actually didn’t come from special education,” said Delbick. “I was an accountant.” Working with a close family friend who had a child with special needs, “It really opened my eyes.” He ended up spending 25 years with Los Angeles Unified School District before joining Sierra Sands in 2019.

“I walked into that classroom and never walked out. Even though I’m not in the classroom every day, it’s my passion. You can’t do this every day if it’s not your passion.”

The SSUSD team continues to develop the autism program as needs are identified, and resources are more readily available. While challenges remain, over the years, they have had plenty of successes that brought the program, and its initiates, along.

Last year, the first wave of students who started out in the original autism classroom at Richmond began graduating from high school. One was valedictorian at the school, where he ended up transferring. Some have distinguished themselves in the Gifted and Talented Education program. Others have gone on to master mainstream academics and sports.

“We know that our autistic students need us. But we need them, too,” said Delbick. “They are an important part of our community.”