COLUMBIA, SC — Tuesday was a big day for students at the Autism Academy of South Carolina.
About a dozen big kids from Dreher High School spent the day with the students, ages 3-11, at their private school in northeast Columbia.
They drew and colored together, had lunch together even played a little whiffle ball together.
Called Mix-It-Up Day, the special program allowed even the youngest of students to practice all-important socialization and language skills, while the older Dreher students got a feel for what life is like for the autistic.
Normally, Im an impatient person, said Kassiem McKee, a senior at Dreher, among a group selected to participate in the program. But today showed me how to be more patient.
Knowing McKee would take that relatively simple lesson with him meant a great deal to the academys cofounder Lorri Unumb, the mother of an autistic child.
Anytime we meet people who dont know much about autism and that gives them a chance to interact or learn more about it, thats just a win-win, Unumb said.
Sponsored by a group of about 40 professionals from Furman Universitys Riley Institute and its diversity leadership initiative, Tuesdays program was designed to bring a greater understanding of the disorder, which now affects roughly one in 88 children.
Unumb who recently received the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award given by the NASCAR Foundation for her work said the school hopes to do more such events to raise awareness.
Shed also like to see an increased awareness of what parents of autistic children go through, not only from the day-to-day perspective of raising an autistic child but the struggles in trying to find adequate educational resources.
Though the private school, which opened its doors in 2011, receives numerous calls and inquiries from parents of autistic children, the academy can only meet the demand of a few who are able to pay for the personalized instruction, whether through private insurance, their own resources or a mix of funding.
Unumb, who has worked to push for autism insurance reform in South Carolina and now nationally through the nonprofit Autism Speaks, says more needs to be done to bridge the gap between the public sector, state boards of education and private insurers.
You cant say this is just a health issue or just an educational issue, she said. We still have a lot of work to do to pull together all these funding sources.
In the meantime, exposing tomorrows future leaders to those with autism, given the increased prevalence of the disorder, is particularly important, school officials say.
Theyre going to be seeing these kids more and more in the community and in vocational settings, said the schools clinical director, Matt Wood.
Both Unumb and Wood said they would like to see more autism academies in communities across the state.
Its very important to give families another option, Wood said. We dont expect all kids with autism to come here, but our idea is to address social and community barriers which prevent them from accessing public school curriculum.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.