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Four-year-old Evelyn Vruns has fun playing in a bounce house in the Somerset Elementary School gym on Friday, April 5, as a part of "Family Fun Friday," an autism awareness event held by the Autism Awareness Committee for the Somerset School District. The event was filled with games and activities that autistic children often participate in as a part of their therapy.

Autism Awareness events conducted

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Autism Awareness events conducted
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On Tuesday, April 2, and Friday, April 5, the Autism Awareness Committee for the Somerset School District held two events in honor of Autism Awareness Month, which is celebrated nationally every April.

Beckah Whitlock began the committee in the fall of 2012 as a way to increase autism awareness in Somerset, to which she and her husband moved because they felt Somerset School District's special education accommodations would help their three autistic sons.

The Autism Awareness committee's efforts are a way of giving back to the community and the district, Whitlock said.

The first event, Tuesday, April 2, was a panel discussion with four autistic Somerset school district students and their mothers, as well as Whitlock and other members of the Autism Awareness Committee.

The panelists answered questions and shared what it is like to be autistic.

One of the biggest challenges the group identified was dealing with being overwhelmed.

Panelist Luke Westmoreland said the mall is one of the hardest places for him to deal with.

"It's very, very hard to stay focused when you have a whole lot of input coming in at one time," Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland said the sounds and the number of people in the mall is overwhelming. Autistic people tend to become easily overwhelmed by sights, sounds and other stimuli to the senses.

"Now, over about 10-20 years, you can get over it, kind of," Westmoreland said.

Quiet time often helps autistic people deal with feeling overwhelmed. So does a good support team.

"If it were not for (my mother) I would've gone insane long ago," Westmoreland said.

Friday's event was "Family Fun Friday," at which activities autistic children do during therapy were set up for children, autistic and non-autistic to enjoy. The idea, Whitlock said, was to bridge the gap between autistic and non-autistic children, by offering activities all children could enjoy, regardless of their abilities.

The activities included bounce houses, Wii games, computer games and more. There was also a calm room set up where any autistic children, if they became overwhelmed, could sit and calm down.

Whitlock said about 170 children attended Family Fun Friday.

The community autism awareness events are finished, but Whitlock said teachers are working with the special education counselors to bring "Traveling Sensory Stations" to classrooms. The stations include activities to help the students experience what it feels like to have under-developed fine motor skills, which is a problem some autistic children face.

Some activities include trying to do homework while wearing glasses smeared in Vaseline, assembling nuts and bolts while wearing oversized garden gloves and jumping rope with yarn.

Whitlock said local businesses are selling "puzzle pieces" for $1 each until the end of April. The Autism Awareness Committee hopes to use the money to support the special education department in aiding autistic children.

Gretta Stark
Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.
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