“The goal of the Olympic Program is to allow students access to the highest academics, social, extra-curricular and overall school experience they can have at a comprehensive high school,” said Mark Sands, a special education teacher at Newport High School.
The students in this program receive support in many of the areas included in the umbrella of executive functioning skills and social competency skills that are often associated with autism spectrum disorder.
To better understand what it’s like for someone who is autistic, Sands described a large group activity he’s conducted. He lines up a group of people two arm lengths apart from each other and has them make eye contact with the person across from them. Next they are asked to take one step in and once they get an assessment of their comfort zone they take another step in. At this point during the activity they are about two feet apart. Next they must go in as close as possible until they can’t handle it anymore, and that is what it may be like for a person with autism who is walking through the halls of Newport every day.
Sands said, “These kids are amazing because they’ve learned how to employ strategies to manage this.”
These strategies are learned from a variety of means including targeted classes, social coaches and a club called Students Educating Peers in Autism, or S.E.P.I.A.
Classes Supporting Students
Most Olympic students take a social skills class in the morning and then a targeted academic skills class in the afternoon. This bookends the day so students start the day with social skills and end the day with executive skills.
Aside from these targeted classes, Olympic students are in the appropriate general education classes or remedial classes. There has been an ongoing increase over the years in the numbers of these students who are also taking AP classes, said Sands.
Social Coaches & Embracing Awkward
Social coaches are advocates who are placed in either social skills or targeted academic skills classes and are also out in the school community and encouraging Olympic Program students in general education classes, and they make a point to say hi in the hallways.
“As a social coach, what we do is work with kids on the spectrum for social settings like what to do on a job interview, dating, or hygiene later on when they are out of high school,” said junior Sam Chap.
The practice of using social coaches was introduced and implemented in the third year of the Olympic Program. Over the nine years in existence, there have been close to 100 Newport students who have served as social coaches. The coaches in the targeted academic skills class with Olympic students are at almost a 1:1 ratio in these classes so each student can have a mentor or tutor that they work well with. The coaches receive class credit or community service, and are supported with ongoing training throughout the year.
The mantra of “Embrace Awkward” was first introduced when new social coaches were being trained by a veteran coach. A former social coach and S.E.P.I.A club president gave advice on what to expect. She said “just embrace awkward,” and that advice stuck. Now the school uses this key phrase to encourage autism awareness.
“Embrace awkward gives awareness about the whole autism spectrum and how important it is to show support for those who have autism,” said Audrey Bacon, a S.E.P.I.A. club member. “Obviously there are different levels of autism and some may struggle with some things, and some don’t. So it’s just good to show support.”
Sands said, “Originally people always thought that people with autism are so awkward. Actually we’re awkward because we don’t know how to expand our comfort zone.”
S.E.P.I.A. club was started by students for students, said Sands.
“I joined S.E.P.I.A because I wanted to expand my horizons, especially with things like autism,” said Bacon.
The club supports students in a variety of ways including providing a space for students to discuss what’s going on in their lives as far as interests and challenges and a venue to talk about school related topics such as assessments.
3rd Annual World Autism Day Concert
April 2, 2106
Kirkland Teen Union Building
Doors open at 7:00 p.m.
Bands play at 8:00 p.m.
Admission is $5 for Newport students and $10 for all others Tickets will be available during lunches at Newport 3/29, 3/31 and 4/1 Donations to the SEPIA Club Prom Scholarship fund can be sent to Ellen Pierson, Newport Accountant. Please make checks payable to SEPIA.
S.E.P.I.A. also holds various fundraisers throughout the year to support Olympic students, and on April 2 they are coordinating the Third Annual World Autism Day Concert. The concert will feature Enzian, a band who has a member that graduated from Newport. A current Olympic student from Newport will also perform with Enzian. Together they will cover a Black Sabbath song. Headlining the concert will be local indie pop band Posse, whose drummer also works with people who are autistic. The proceeds from the concert will go towards a scholarship fund for Olympic program students to attend prom.
All of the efforts by the Olympic Program, social coaches and S.E.P.I.A are for one goal. ”We’re always trying to raise awareness for everybody, but we also want to teach with a common language,” said Sands. “In the end, we just want to lift the veil off of autism.”