Local News

'Multi-sensory learning'

AVON PARK - Memorial Elementary School teacher Lisa Schrader's classroom looks nothing like your average class, but then her students are not your everyday kids. Schrader's eight students have a variety of disabilities. They are what she calls "non verbal," almost all of them cannot read or write, and are learning to be functional through multi-sensory learning -- by touching, smelling and hearing -- and it all starts with the ambiance in Schrader's class. The moment you walk in, you can tell the difference. It's like entering a Japanese restaurant.
The Zen-like atmosphere is there for a reason, Schrader explained. Many of her students, who are autistic, don't like bright lights. The atmosphere and decor are deliberately kept mellow to calm the students. The class' "calming corner" has a Zen fountain in a corner, two massage chairs, ambient lighting, a video of a roaring fire, and Schrader even plays Zen music to quieten them. A ball pit sits on one side of the class for those who have energy to burn, and Schrader uses several interactive materials and devices to teach her students. Schrader, who has been teaching special needs students for 12 years, came up with the multi-sensory learning idea this school year. She researched it last summer, and thanks to a $1,000 grant from Walmart, donations from the community, Home Depot, and some of her own money, was able to put the curriculum in place at Memorial Elementary. "By presenting information in a multi-sensory way, it greatly assists students in acquiring and retaining information," she said. Items in the classroom combine the "appeal of texture, color and sound" and allow students to interact with devices that teach them functional activities. As an example, she does what she calls "switch activities" with one of her students, Otis Kelly. In return for pressing a button, he can feel vibrations on his hand from a device that looks like a hair blower. Her objective is to get her students, like Gabriel Salgueiro, somewhat functional in life. Gabriel can now change his own diapers and puts on his own shoes and socks, while another one of her students, David Carlisle, has learned not to tear away his foot wear like he used to. David did not like getting massaged, either, she said, but through gradual therapy has crossed to bigger milestones. David's nurse, Kisha Falcon, said she's seen an improvement, and now David will be trying to walk with the help of a gait trainer. Recently, two pet therapy dogs brought a little bit of excitement into the classroom and gave Schrader a glimpse of something moving and unusual with one of her students, Romeo Barrios, who does not talk. In the hour the two dogs were there, Romeo somehow bonded with Daisey, Della Figur's black-and-white English springer spaniel. At first Romeo lay, playing with Daisey's spots, then started singing to her when they were about to leave. "Obviously, the child had made some kind of connection with the dog," remembered Figur. "It was an extremely touching moment." Schrader is also working with a new initiative started by the Champions for Children Foundation for autistic kids. Through the AWE-tistic program, Romeo got a new iPad to bridge the gap between school and home. "This type of help increases the quality of this child's education immensely," she said. Schrader is also planning to sit on the AWE-tistic committee, and one of her goals is to increase awareness about autism in the community. "A lot of people don't understand these children," she said. "It's a lack of understanding of what they can do."