Educators gain knowledge on autism

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 10:04 PM

D.J. Svoboda wants children with special needs and mental disabilities not to feel deterred by fear or insecurities.

“Never let doubt get in the way,” Svoboda said Wednesday afternoon at the Vance County school administration building. “Positive always beats the negative.”

Svoboda, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 3-years-old, is a motivational public speaker that has authored two books that invent a world where colorful characters teach important lessons about friendship and acceptance.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines autism spectrum disorder as a group of developmental brain disorders associated with social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors.

Pam Jackson, director of the Vance County schools’ Exceptional Children department, said 64 children in the school system are diagnosed with autism as their primary disability.

“It’s been an upwardly mobile trend for the past five years,” Jackson said of the growing population of exceptional children.

Svoboda’s book, “My Imagiville,” tells the story of an autistic boy Josh who encounters the colorful Imagifriends while walking home one day. They provide Josh with encouragement and hope, just as Svoboda instills a positive message in his audience.

The 31-year-old was bullied in elementary school, and his experiences have inspired him to tell his story and serve as an advocate for other children who have an autism diagnosis.

Svoboda says his books are designed to help others feel good about themselves, despite criticism from others.

Susie Jordan, a special education teacher at Zeb Vance Elementary, said she attended Wednesday’s presentation because she wanted to learn ways to relate better with her nonverbal students.

“I have taught autistic kids before, and they are the most difficult to teach for me,” she said. “I think my kids have some autistic tendencies but they are not labeled.”

Svoboda said he would like to promote tolerance and understanding among students who may not recognize the characteristics of autism.

“Some people don’t understand what autism is,” he said. “By working as a team, we can change that.”

He said bullying happens for a variety of reasons, but it should always be reported to teachers by student bystanders.

“It’s never tattling,” he said. “It’s just reporting and it’s helping.”

Terri Perkins, from the Exceptional Children Department, said the presentation is part of an informational series about autism from the department’s Autism Problem Solving Team, a group that supports knowledge and tolerance of the disorder.

She said one of the most challenging issues for exceptional children teachers is understanding the behavioral aspect.

“We try to not just look at the surface behavior, but how it relates to autism and which core features it relates to,” Perkins said.

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.