Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization, has awarded nearly $930,000 in grants to community groups nationwide, including some in Western Pennsylvania.
Grants totaling $5,000 each will go to UPMC’s Theiss Early Autism Program, a development center for children diagnosed with autism, and Intermediate Unit 1, an educational support agency.
The Theiss Early Autism Program will use the grant to enhance its Community and Family Involvement initiative.
“We really notice that a lot of the families that we serve don’t have the resources in their homes to allow for the generalization of the skills we teach in the classroom to the home environment,” said lead clinician Ali Perryman.
The grant money will go directly toward purchasing supplies for families to use at home, including diapers and wipes, Perryman said.
Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1) will use the grant to create a multi-sensory environment break room to help students with autism and multiple disabilities get through the school day at an IU1 elementary school in Washington County. The room will include calming, interactive lights, as well as mirrors, weighted blankets and other tactile objects that will give students the stimulation they need to stay focused throughout the school day.
Justine Phillips, a program director at UI1, said the environment will act as a break room for students.
“If they’re over-stimulated, it provides a mean for them to just relax and get fidgets out, calm down if they’re frustrated, so they can go back to an activity or academics that they can then concentrate on,” she said.
“For students with autism, even multi-disabilities, senses can be either over-stimulated or under-stimulated, which creates stress and anxiety for students, which complicates the learning process and just life in general,” Phillips said.
This can make sitting in a classroom for an extended period of time difficult.
“And this is just meant to aid them in all of that,” according to Phillips.
She said once the room is set up at the end of the year, teachers will adjust students’ schedules to give them time in the multi-sensory environment based on their individual needs.
“Some students may only access a room like this maybe twice a day, where others may need it every hour or even less than that,” she said. “So, depending on the students and their needs, some students might just need some pressure and some movement.”
Multi-sensory environments are nothing new, according to Outreach and Development Specialist with IU1 Pat Hazen, but she said the projects typically run as high as $30,000 to $40,000.
“We will be able to use this as a model for how you can create a multi-sensory environment on a very limited budget when you have a new classroom,” Hazen said.
The room will serve nine children ranging from preschool through second grade. Phillips declined to say which school would be getting the multi-sensory room.
IU1 serves 25 school districts in Fayette, Green and Washington counties.
Perryman said the Autism Speaks grant program is making a significant impact in the region.
“It’s doing wonders for Western Pennsylvania,” Perryman said. “I think the services in this area just continue to grow, and the need also continues to grow.”