Parents call USM Autism Project an answered prayer

LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - By Danielle Thomas – bio | email

LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - A new program is trying to ensure children don't miss out on a public education just because they have Autism. Earlier this year, the University of Southern Mississippi launched the Gulf Coast Autism Project with a grant from the Mississippi Department of Education. Instructors work with pre-schoolers to ready them with the social and academic skills needed for a public classroom.

At the beginning of every school day, teachers make sure to keep the four-year-old Kara on a set routine of activities. However, they're always hopeful for that surprise breakthrough that makes all the hard work worthwhile.

"Typical children, you celebrate the big accomplishments that they make," said teacher Jennifer Voneberstein. "With our students, it's the little things that you work on and you work on. Finally they do it and you can't help but be so excited."

Kara doesn't talk, which her teachers say is not uncommon for Autistic children. Visual supports, play time, and other techniques are used to develop communication skills. But at the end of the day, teachers say the best strategy is the one that works.

"If you've seen one child with Autism, then you've seen one child with Autism," Voneberstein said. "That child is so individualized. You can't just grab any therapy and say, 'This therapy is going to work for all students.'"

The three, four, and five year olds taking part in the Autism Project are on a track designed to prepare them for public schools. The project also prepares teachers, counselors and administrators to work with the children.

"It's all geared toward the public schools," said Tim Morse, USM Gulf Coast Autistic Project Training Director. "That's already the institution that we as a society have tasked with providing educational services for these children."

Because a happy school life goes hand in hand with a happy home life, the Autism Project offers support for parents dealing with a special needs child. Kara's parents say the program has been an answered prayer for their family.

"She used to have meltdowns quite frequently throughout the day. It's really hard to get them to calm down," said Kara's mother Krystal Crosby. "That's improved. She is trying to talk more so than she was. Just her whole behavior, her attitude, everything has changed. I see a little bit more of a happy little girl. She's started to come out of her shell."

Kara's parents say the progress they've seen in their little girl gives them hope for the kind of life she'll have.

Her father, Robert Crosby, said, "If this program continues and she is able to advance to where she can go to public school. That's our hope. That's what we want."

"It's a parent's dream. When she was first diagnosed with Autism, we didn't know how to handle it. We didn't know what her future was going to bring," said Krystal Crosby. "But every day the smallest little things matter so much. You just take that for granted some times, but with a special needs child, it's amazing."

Public school teachers, counselors and administrators interested in training to work with Autistic children or parents interested in enrolling their child should call (228) 863-1755 or e-mail

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