Daily News photo/ALY GIBSON North Pointe Center student Kenny Chaney presents his portfolio to the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District board Wednesday with his teacher Molly High. Chaney was the most recent individual to work through a state-funded program for autism spectrum disorders.

Archived Story

Autism project speaks volumes

Published 8:02pm Wednesday, May 9, 2012

When Molly High first met Kenny Chaney of Cassopolis, he wouldn’t speak to her. Besides repeating words and phrases said directly to him, Kenny wouldn’t speak to anyone.

However, after months of work through a state-funded project, Kenny rose in front of the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District board Wednesday and gave a presentation of his portfolio.

The project, entitled the START (Statewide Autism Resources and Training) Transition Project, is geared towards helping post-secondary students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) reach their full potential. In many cases, this includes speech therapy, technology-based learning systems and help finding meaningful employment.

“When Kenny first came to us, it was almost impossible for him to communicate,” High, Kenny’s teacher at North Pointe Center in Dowagiac, said.

Through extensive work with High, Carrie Rabbitt, autism and behavioral consultant for the district, Cecily Ogden, Kenny’s social worker, and Lauren McCormick, Kenny’s speech therapist, formed a team to help Kenny begin to speak, type and communicate with others.

“We first began with giving him an iPod Touch with a speaker,” High said during the meeting. “He would be able to type what he was feeling, and then the speaker would play it.”

However, Kenny didn’t immediately take to the device. But after using the iPod with another student without the speaker, Kenny was able to exchange freely about his weekend with the other person, something marked as a significant improvement. Afterward, through different techniques and more opportunities for speech, Kenny began to talk with others verbally.

“All of my students answer the phone in my classroom,” High said. “He began to initiate conversations with other people.”

According to McCormick, Kenny also took on more chances to speak and now orders his own food at a restaurant, answers direct questions and, most importantly, advocates for himself.

“Kenny started answering ‘wh’ questions,” McCormick said. “For example, ‘who’ questions were being answered at around 40 percent when Kenny first started. By March, he had reached 60 percent.”

“The goal of the project is to choose students who are deemed unemployable, or less likely to be employed, and help them reach the potential to not only work, but become successful,” Rabbitt said.

The project is in its second year in the district, something Rabbit expects to continue each year with a new student.

“This project helps the student, but it also helps us realize exactly what skills they have that we may not know about,” Rabbitt said. “From that, we can find possible employment opportunities for the future.”

Kenny, with the help of a job coach, works at Goodwill.

“During the discovery, we didn’t realize how many skills Kenny actually has,” High said. “Once we understood all he could do, we were able to help.”

After Kenny successfully completed his presentation to the board, the room applauded him, including his family who had come for the special occasion.

“Of the two kids we’ve seen featured through this project, they have had their family here to support them,” Supt. Robert Colby said. “It shows how important a supportive family really is.”

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