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Health Team

Student with autism thrives in mainstream classroom

Posted October 7, 2011 3:37 p.m. EDT
Updated October 7, 2011 6:18 p.m. EDT

A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder brings with it many difficult challenges, including the need for parents to find the best school situation for their child.

For 7-year-old Declan Powell, the perfect classroom is Marsha Souza's first grade class at Cresset Christian Academy in Durham. There Declan, who has autism, attends school with his brother, Kieran, 6.

"I just teach like I would normally teach," Souza says. Kieran serves as Declan's "shadow" helper.

"That makes it possible for me to help the other children, because he does need one-on-one attention all day," Souza says.

The boys' mother, Kerrie Powell, said the family tried putting Declan in a special classroom. "He was in what's called an Autism Contained Classroom where he was one student with five other little boys. He was the only verbal one," she said.

She was convinced the answer for Declan was "inclusion" -- a class with typically developing children, with special assistance. The Powells convinced Cresset Christian Academy to take a chance on Declan. So far, he's proven that with a little patience from others, he fits right in.

"When he has an overload, and he just has had enough of instruction, we let him take a break," his teacher said.

He also has his brother nearby. "Kieran has a larger-than-life personality," his mother says. "I always refer to him as the best therapist we never paid."

Declan's mom admits inclusion isn't the solution for every child with autism, but she thinks more schools should offer the option for those who could benefit.

"That's the tough thing. Autism really comes down to personalized medicine," Kerrie Powell says. "I think it becomes very specific to your child."

The Powell family will be among the participants Saturday in the Triangle Run/Walk for Autism in downtown Raleigh. They will join more than 100 members of "Team Declan" in Moore Square at 9 a.m. for the event, the 13th annual fundraiser for the Autism Society of North Carolina.