By Stephen Smoot
Last weekend, parents and school professionals gathered at Pendleton County Library to learn more about autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) related techniques and resources.
Cara Reel, a Marshall University autism specialist based in Moorefield, shared that “I travel the entire Eastern Panhandle.” Reel added that their program had not yet served anyone from Mineral or Pendleton counties, so she made it a priority to come to Pendleton to share information.
“I asked Miss Wendy if I could do a training here, and she said yes,” Reel said.
According to Reel, one of the program’s roles lies in being “a bridge between home and school” for kids with ASD, but she said that their client ages ranged between three and 77.
Her presentation started with a discussion of how the diagnosis and evaluation has changed in recent years. This includes a rise in the number of people diagnosed and a larger percentage found to have it. Reel discussed possible reasons, including better diagnostic tools and understanding.
For example, the West Virginia Department of Education reports that during the 2022-23 school year, 82 percent of the 3,140 students receiving ASD related services were male. Reel discussed how “girls are more likely to camouflage behaviors than boys.” Because “girls kind of blend in,” ASD is harder to observe in them. Girls may seem “awkward, but interacting.”
She also shared that ASD comes in tiers of severity. Those who have high functioning, or level one, autism, with proper support, can communicate reasonably well. Their repetitive behaviors, again with support, are not as noticeable. People who have level two autism will sometimes present communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors even with support in place.
People with level three autism, even with significant support, experience communication and behavior problems that significantly impair daily life.
Additionally, professionals adhere to the level system and do not use older names for certain conditions, such as Asperger’s Syndrome. Diagnosis also now comes from standards defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health.
Reel stressed that those with ASD cannot all be treated in the same way. “All of our children with autism learn things differently,” she said, adding that when trying to instruct, give them “direct, clear language,” and use visual cues whenever possible.
She shared from her own experience about telling a child with ASD that “it’s raining cats and dogs outside.” Because a child with ASD struggles to think in any terms other than literal, when she went to the window and only saw water, her brain could not overcome the processing and communication challenge and she had a meltdown.
The process for getting involved with the program is to first perform an intake. Step two involves a phone call, after which families will be categorized as to which tier the client is on. Because of limited resources, the next necessary step for most lies in going on a waiting list for services until a spot opens with a specialist in their area.
Reel stated that she had nine in her caseload and seven on a waiting list. “Once you start services,” she said, “you are always in our system.” The specialist will identify the most challenging behavior or aspect presented by the client and make that a priority. Reel added that they also do consult work with schools.
Beyond working with parents, Reel stated that the autism training center has worked with the West Virginia State Police, county sheriff’s departments, and local city and town police departments, as well as correctional officers. “The next step,” she explained, “is to train first responders, dispatchers, and EMTs. We want to give them an idea of what autism is and what they should prepare for.”
After a detailed presentation that shared detailed information, Reel shared information on how to register with the program. For more information, she can be reached at (304) 257-6210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.