Tori Hopper, children's and teen services and programming coordinator at Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, demonstrates how children with autism or other learning disabilities can use one of the toys at the library's Autism Resource Center to practice tying their shoes. The center provides parents and children with resources and connects them to other area organizations that can serve them, though some of its in-person services have been halted because of the pandemic. On Saturday, the library will host a virtual ARC Family Fair to connect parents with those organizations. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
January 22, 2021 10:18:17 AM
Leslie Junkin said she knows of a child who, when his school shut down due to the pandemic last year, thought he must have done something wrong.
The child is a special education student at his school, and his favorite thing to do every morning is ride the bus. His parents couldn't explain to him that the bus wasn't coming because of a deadly virus.
"They couldn't make him understand 'It's not anything that you did,'" Junkin said. "Because he had told them, 'I'll be good,' thinking that he was bad and had to stay home."
That's one example of the way the pandemic has hurt SPED children and their families, said Junkin.
Junkin is project director for the Mississippi Parent Training and Information Center, which trains and works with parents of special needs children around the state to help them advocate for their child's education. MSPTI is one of several organizations presenting during the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library's Virtual Autism Resource Center (ARC) Family Fair at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The ARC Family Fair is an annual event the library hosts to inform parents of area organizations that can provide resources for children and, in some cases, adults who have been diagnosed with a learning, mental or physical disability, said the library's Children's and Teen Services and Program Coordinator Tori Hopper. And this year, like so many other events, the pandemic has sent it online.
"We get organizations from the community to come and just talk about how they serve families with special needs," she said. "It doesn't have to be somebody on the autism spectrum. ... We provide them with connections."
Funded through grants and donations from Friends of the Library, the Autism Resource Center offers a collection of books and activities designed to help kids with disabilities. In a typical year, it hosts storytime events for families with special needs children to get together for activities and lets parents check out learning tools, such as flashcards designed to help children identify everything from emotions to street signs or other educational puzzles and games.
Thanks to the pandemic, those programs have been temporarily suspended, Hopper said, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She still has people checking out the resource center's books and DVDs -- which includes everything from informational books to memoirs written by people with autism spectrum disorders and their families -- but thinks families and children are missing that sense of community that came with in-person programs such as the storytimes.
"Your socialization is definitely limited, both for parent and child," Hopper said. "If you don't have socialization for the child, that's one thing. But the parent is probably going to feel very isolated as well, unless they start reaching out. I think we're seen as an organization that parents will reach out to for assistance."
It's why the virtual family fair is so important this year.
"(The information presented) will be updated with pandemic regulations," she said.
The pandemic has been rough on families with children with special needs, agreed Hopper, Junkin and Kasee Stratton-Gadke, director for Mississippi State University's T.K. Martin Center, which provides therapies and equipment for individuals with disabilities all over the state.
T.K. Martin is one of eight organizations that will present at the ARC Family Fair Saturday.
Like everyone else, children with special needs miss their after-school activities and, if they're learning from home, miss being with their friends and teachers at school. Because many of them are medically fragile, they have stayed home even as other children have gone back to in-person classes and activities.
Those problems are compounded by the disruptions to families' schedules, since children with diagnoses such as autism who rely on strict routines, Stratton-Gadke said. So not only are the children and their families more isolated than usual, but the children are particularly emotionally vulnerable.
"You might see a spike in anxiety," Stratton-Gadke said. "We've seen some who are depressed because they're missing time with their friends."
Socialization is particularly important for children with disorders on the autism spectrum or similar learning disabilities because they often have difficulty communicating and expressing or identifying emotions. Being around other people helps them learn to do that, Stratton-Gadke said.
It's made even more difficult for children who intellectually cannot understand the virus, such as the child who wanted to ride the bus, Junkin said.
"They've lost their familiar places, their familiar people," she said. "They've lost their structure, their therapy, because they're not getting them at home."
Hopper hopes the ARC Family Fair will help parents find more resources their children can use both during the pandemic and once it's over.
Stratton-Gadke said T.K. Martin's presentation will focus on its pre-K program as well as a new program it's launching called IGNITE Dyslexia/Reading Clinic Reading Program, which is designed to keep students from falling behind on reading during the pandemic. The program is funded through a $240,000 Governor's Emergency Education Response grant from the state. It will run through June 2022.
Junkin said MSPTI's representatives will give a brief overview of the assistance and training they provide parents when it comes to advocating for SPED children's education, as well as emphasize how they can contact them for more information.
"Our goal was mainly to tell them what we do and how to get to us," she said. "Here's the resources we have available. We can provide training, we can provide phone support, meeting support, but for more in-depth support, here's our contact information."
To attend the family fair, families can go to Zoom and enter the identification 397 842 5193. The password is ARC2021.
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