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On playground, autistic kids bond with peers

Katy Donmoyer (center), who is autistic, and Dina Geotas (right) play jump rope during recess at Copper Ridge Elementary School in Scottsdale.

Katy Donmoyer (center), who is autistic, and Dina Geotas (right) play jump rope during recess at Copper Ridge Elementary School in Scottsdale.

PHOENIX – It was Katy Donmoyer’s habit to spend recess alone, circling the perimeter of her Scottsdale elementary playground.

Her sister, Leah, hovered silently near groups of playing children, who ignored her.

But last month, however, the 9-year-old twins were taking turns jumping rope, even doubles, with classmates in the middle of Copper Ridge Elementary School’s crowded and chaotic playground. To behavioral scientists, the change is more evidence that their new strategy to help autistic kids fit into recess is working.

To the twins’ mother, it is hope her daughters will have a social life despite a disorder marked by an inability to understand the give and take of conversation, play and making friends.

In January, Copper Ridge’s playground became an incubator for a new kind of recess in which kids teach their autistic classmates about the joys of the playground. And autistic kids teach them a little compassion.

In the past nine years, as the number of Arizona school kids grew by 25 percent, the number diagnosed with autism grew fivefold. More than 5,000 autistic kids are in Arizona’s K-12 schools.

More schools across the country are training teachers and adding teaching assistants so more of these children can learn in a regular classroom.

But Copper Ridge is among the first to find ways for these children to successfully fit into the often intimidating social mix of recess.

The program being refined on its playground will help create a blueprint for schools across the nation.

It has already attracted the attention of Scottsdale parents, who are increasingly seeking to enroll their autistic children in the school.

Parents are eager to make sure their autistic children do not end up like many: isolated by their peers, bullied and, as they get older, depressed.

“You see your child progressing academically,” said Karen Donmoyer, the twins’ mother. “But, more importantly, you realize: I want my child to be happy. I want my child to have friends. That was the piece that wasn’t getting attention.”

Scottsdale Unified School District helps the Donmoyer twins and other high-functioning autistic students fit into regular classrooms for most of the day.

Schools often use recess time to group autistic children in quiet spaces, where they can play games and learn the art of conversation or send them to the playground to drift.

Karen Donmoyer wanted a better option.

The Phoenix-based Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center worked with her to create something better for the entire school.

The center’s coaches organize the favorite activities of the students with autism, such as a board game or a game of tag, on the playground. With a little encouragement, the games attract a variety of students. Coaches use the games to teach kids with autism and their classmates the skills they need to play together.

“You are then positively impacting both the child with autism and the typical children because you’re getting these kids to be compassionate toward each other,” Donmoyer said. “It’s not rocket science.”

Other center staff members shoot video or count the number of interactions and other changes in the behavior of all kids. They also track children’s behavior and progress inside the classroom.

Preliminary data show autistic kids are initiating more contacts, other kids are more responsive, and the adults are learning a few things.

For example, many were surprised that most kids preferred organized games during recess over free play, said Daniel Openden, the center’s clinical director who began developing the new strategies a few years ago while a graduate student in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“The kids flock to you,” he said. “It’s like a magnet.”

What school officials noted immediately was a dip in the number of kids referred to the principal for misbehaving during recess.

Both in Santa Barbara and Scottsdale, the structured games attracted class clowns and the same kids most likely to bully, Openden said.

“They are our most stellar and frequent participants,” he said.

It has also cut back on the amount of classroom time spent settling playground spats.

“The beauty of the program is that it does help all kids,” Copper Ridge Principal Sheila Burnham said. “Teachers are very supportive because a lot of instruction time, when the students come back to the classroom, is spent putting out fires from lunchtime. They find now students come back more calm and collected.”

Helping an autistic child develop a relationship with a non-autistic child is good for both, said Susan Walczynski, executive director of the National Autism Center, based in Massachusetts.

But research on the subject has been confined to special programs and special settings.

“We need to see more research like what’s going on in Scottsdale, in a real-world setting,” Walczynski said.

“It’s an increasing trend, but not as fast as we would hope it to be. Scottsdale is really on the cutting edge.”

The Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center is creating a step-by-step manual that could help implement similar programs in all Scottsdale’s elementary schools.

Eventually, if research continues to show positive results, it is likely to be used in schools throughout the state and nation.

Donmoyer is convinced it’s making a difference in her kids’ lives.

“They are the kids who will be co-workers of my kids; they could be employers of my kids,” Donmoyer said.

“If they’re trained at a young age to respect and value people with differences, then it’s my hope they will carry it through.”

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