Durham strives to enhance education and inclusion for students with autism 

From sensory spaces to advocacy, experts recommend a comprehensive approach 

DURHAM, NC — Durham accessibility experts are calling for the use of sensory spaces and better teacher training to support students with disabilities. 

Experts and community leaders say that more needs to be done to accommodate the needs of students with a disability, particularly those with autism. 

“I think that [the need for accessibility has] been around for a long time,” said Wendy Vavrousek, the Durham Public Schools elementary director for exceptional children. “We just haven’t recognized it in the same way because [students with disabilities] can look so different across the spectrum.” 

According to the 2021 U.S. Census, 13 percent of Americans have a disability, with one in every 36 being diagnosed with autism.  

Children with autism have different needs and can feel overwhelmed, said David Laxton, director of communication for the Autism Society of North Carolina. Laxton said they need visual and verbal clues, more time on tests, and other accommodations to help them be successful in the classroom. 

“Because autism affects how one processes information… students need to have instruction that is tailored to their needs,” Laxton said. 

One way to help students with autism is to provide sensory rooms to help them cope when they feel overwhelmed. 

Jennifer Jamsky, the accessibility services coordinator at the Durham County Library, said the library has become a resource for the autism community by providing access to sensory rooms. 

Potential community solutions 

Sensory spaces are not new. The idea originated from scientists in the Netherlands, explained Jamsky. 

The sensory room is available to all community members. Click the link to access a more in depth view. https://tinyurl.com/2jtdanf6  (Sydney Ross)

“They came up with multi-sensory spaces because sensory engagement and sensory inclusion helps all types of people,” Jamsky said. “I think, originally, they started working with folks with autism, but it really became apparent quickly after that, anyone can benefit from sensory… engagement and inclusion.” 

According to National Autism Resources, multi-sensory spaces are becoming more common. Their increasing popularity can be seen with more local schools, libraries, hospitals, universities and entertainment spaces trying to incorporate some kind of sensory engagement into their facilities.    

At the Durham Public Library, the sensory space, located on the third floor of the library, can be tailored to the needs of the person using it, said Jamsky. Lights can be dimmed, and sounds can be adjusted depending on the person’s sensory needs. 

The library has a secondary sensory play area, with a magnetic wall, and an interactive light display. The space is decorated with brightly colored paintings that were created by an artist who also has a disability.  

 “Kids come in, they play, they make art, and they interact,” Jamsky said. 

Close by, there is a third sensory space that people can use specifically for calming and emotional regulation, equipped with a projector, and other sensory tools. Here, Jamsky said she even sees elementary school aged students come in and use the space for reading and doing homework to improve their concentration.  

Experimenting with light! This interactive display facilitates play with patterns and colors. (Sydney Ross)

She also said she has seen a lot of fidget toys being used in the room, which David Laxton says is helpful to young students because it can aid them in reducing their frustration and redirect them to their task. 

“It’s so different from when I was growing up,” Jamsky said. “It was like, ‘Nope, you sit at your desk, you listen, you don’t play with anything’ even though people are realizing that it actually can help with concentration.” 

Prioritizing individual student needs 

The district takes an individualized approach to accommodate the sensory needs of students with autism, Vavrousek said.  

Students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that provides an overall strategy to help each student perform better in school, and it outlines tactics to aide in that process.  

For example, some children with autism may be affected by loud sounds and want headphones, while others can’t stand headphones, Vavrousek explained. 

Expanding teacher training 

Despite these accommodations for students with disabilities, there is still other areas that can be improved in the Durham community to properly accommodate students with autism Vavrousek said. 

Vavrousek said one of the biggest challenges in the district is the lack of training for teachers who work with students with disabilities, particularly those with autism. She said almost every teacher has had a student in their classroom on the autism spectrum. 

The question for the school district, she said, is how do we help teachers become more knowledgeable so they can support student with autism in the classroom. “Because some of our children don’t need special education if we create the right structures and reinforcement systems.” 

She said that those studying to become new teachers often have limited education about how to manage students with autism, who may need extra support in the classroom as they struggle with social interactions or sensory defensiveness (which is a fight or flight response). 

“Classroom management can often be a challenge for any teacher, so once you add a layer of a disability in there, they become more challenged,” Vavrousek said. 

Calling on the community 

Community organizations like the Autism Society of North Carolina work to combat these challenges, said Laxton. He said the organization proves training to teachers so they can create individualized programs. 

“Good communication between the school and parents/caregivers is also critical because that helps each party understand what is going on and be consistent with the approach that works best for the student,” Laxton said. 

Durham resident and community leader Venice Sanders said helping students with disabilities is a community conversation and the responsibility should not fall just on the child’s parent and primary teacher. 

“This is 2023, these [children] are our future,” Sanders said. 

The challenge for the community she said is, “how can we make our child the best person possible and to be productive in life no matter what disability they got.”