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Sidney Public Schools educators attend autism awareness conference


Sidney Public Schools administrators and special education teachers attended a conference held in Kearney in early April to further their education on autism awareness.

With April designated as National Autism Awareness Month, a group of special educators for Sidney Public Schools went to the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Network’s 12th Annual State Conference in Kearny on April 7 to learn more on the increasingly prominent disorder.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that involves abnormal development and function of the brain. People with autism show decreased social communication skills and restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviors or interests.

The Center for Disease Control Prevention issued a report in 2014 concluding that autism has risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States, a significant increase from the 1 in 125 births cited in the center’s 2004 study.

Autism shows signs early in the development stage, with symptoms emerging between 12 and 18 months of age. However, many doctors are hesitant to diagnose too early.

A committee comprised of educators, parents, university and state agency representatives was created by the The Nebraska Department of Education and the Office of Special Education. The committee created a state plan to provide special education and information on services provided by the Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Network.

This state plan was completed in 2000 and began implementation in 2002.

This year’s conference that was held at Younes Convention Center with Kari Dunn Buron, who developed an Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate program for educators at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., serving as its keynote speaker.

“The Nebraska conference was exceptionally well run,” Buron said. “The Autism Network began planning years in advance and worked closely with me to be sure the topic and the material were relevant to their participants. My keynote topic addressed the neuroscience of challenging behavior.”

Buron’s keynote presentation provided an overview of social thinking skills as they relate directly to challenging behavior.

“Science can now make use of functional MRI scans when researching learning and human behavior, and the results indicate that challenging student behavior can be addressed much like a learning disability, by teaching social skills,” she said. “The part of the brain that helps us negotiate social situations, solve social problems and repair interpersonal relationships is developmental and some students have poorly developed social competence.

“This suggests that our old punishment and reward systems of managing unwanted behavior is too simplistic. Strategies like school suspension might stop the immediate behavior, but they don’t teach the skills needed to behave differently in the future.”

Buron said she hoped her address sparked debate about how one thinks about observed behavior.

“How an educator thinks about behavior determines how he or she feels about that behavior, and how he or she feels about behavior determines what he or she chooses to do about it,” she said.

Angie Jacobsen, special education coordinator and school psychologist for SPS, said one of the biggest things they are hearing about autism during the past couple of years regards social thinking and emotional regulation.

“Social thinking is thinking about how others think, and then being able to interact with them,” Jacobsen said.

Jennifer Wittee, speech pathologist and special educator for SPS, attended the autism awareness conference with her colleges. She has been with SPS for 15 years and has worked with the Nebraska ASD Network’s Regional West team for more than nine years.

Wittee said the Regional team helps provide awareness, training and support to schools around the region. She said that the presentation that spoke to her the most was one that talked about behaviors that go beyond academics and help to prepare children with the social skills they need to be successful.

“Early intervention is crucial,” Witte said. “Getting care and support to children and families early is very important.”

“We can conduct an evaluation to see if a student has autism, its not a medical diagnosis, its an educational verification,” Jacobsen said.

Wittee said that it is important to know that these services are out there and free for people birth to age 21.

For more information, tools and resources on autism, visit the Nebraska ASD Network website at


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