Three boys sit around a kid-sized table in a classroom at St. Luke United Methodist Church. Their teachers, Rebecca Meeks Smith and Jessica Maddocks, help them maneuver scissors to cut around outlines of sheep. Then they get out the glue sticks and cotton balls. “He’ll be sad without hair. He’ll get cold,” Smith explains to one boy.
“Ooh, yuck,” says the boy, glue sticking to his hands. Smith quickly helps him wipe it off.
After the craft exercise, the boys sing “If you’re happy and you know it ...” For the most part, they pay attention and participate. Laminated squares are stuck to Velcro on a wall painted beige. After each activity, one of the teachers tears it off. Routine is important.
The class is about a month old. A first for the church and for the area, the class is for autistic children. The teachers are specially trained to teach the class. Smith teaches special education at Brewer Elementary, and Maddocks works for Babies Can’t Wait, a statewide early intervention system for infants and toddlers with special needs — ages birth to three — and their families.
A recent report says 1 in 91 children has Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). “The prevalence of autism might be even higher than we previously thought,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Huffington Post. Sebelius has called autism “a public health challenge.”
It’s unclear if the increasing number of cases can be traced to broadened criteria (ASD includes everything from autism to delayed development); or that children are diagnosed earlier, or some of both.
How this translates locally: In Columbus, Lisa Jenkins has seen the Muscogee County Autism Support Group grow from six families in 2005 to 400 this year. The group has monthly meetings, where child care is provided. George, her youngest of three sons, was diagnosed in Atlanta when he was 18 months old. In addition to autism, George has brain damage.
“We can treat the autism,” she said. George goes to Hannan Elementary. Formerly enrolled at the Early Learning Center at St. Luke, George had a sensory garden planted in his honor about four years ago.
Lisa Jenkins then worked on forming a Sunday school class and is helping several other churches to start one. Her initial reason for advocacy was George, but it’s grown to include all children in the area with autism. There are about 200 kids in Muscogee County schools with autism. (The larger number for the support group comes from people in outlying counties.)
Tough on families
In families with an autistic child, the divorce rate is 85 percent. “Usually it’s a financial reason,” Lisa Jenkins said, “and if there are other siblings, the other children get lost.”
The Jenkins family — George, Lisa, her husband Ed and their boys Ed Jr. and Luke — stayed away from church as a family unit for about two years, because George needed such close monitoring. “We’d watch it on TV or the computer,” Lisa Jenkins said, “but it wasn’t the same.” Now with the implementation of the class, the four other family members can sit together for the 11 a.m. service.
“I can be there and know he’s safe and I know he’s comfortable,” she said. “But we’re a family that goes to church. It felt like we were sinking. ... I’m so grateful. God’s doing this; I’m just a tool.”
Jenkins is secretary of the support group, which meets monthly at St. Luke.
Frances Woolfolk of Columbus is a single parent to 6-year-old John.
Diagnosed with mild to moderate autism when he was 3, John used to bang his head repeatedly on window panes. Typical of autistic children, he demonstrated a high tolerance to pain. Friends and family commented that he seemed to look through them when they chatted. “People said they couldn’t get his attention,” said Frances, a member of First Baptist Church. “He would bite, beat his head and chew up my arms.”
After his diagnosis, Frances Woolfolk put her son on natural supplements. He’s a straight-A student at Johnson Elementary, where he has two hours a day of special education, she said.
“He’s a different child,” Woolfolk said. “He’s my only child and he’s a walking miracle.”
Frances took John to the St. Luke Sunday school class for the first time last Sunday. “He said to me, ‘Yes, mama, I loved it. I had fun,’ ” she said.
The class can accommodate up to eight children. If it grows beyond eight, another section will be added, Jenkins said.
For more information, call the Rev. Loretta Dunbar at 706-327-4343.