Lewis County Parent to Parent engages Onalaska elementary students with presentation on autism


Recently, Lewis County Parent to Parent Coordinator Shawna Haller and Cassandra Whitaker presented to several classes at Onalaska Elementary School on the topic of autism in order to educate, raise awareness, promote understanding and encourage the acceptance and inclusion of all people.

Haller created a presentation with information on autism and an engagement activity for students, which were presented to students on Thursday, April 18. Whitaker recently published “The Happy Flappy Child,” which was based on her own son's tendency to "stim" with his arms when excited or happy. She read the book to the class to present autism in an easy-to-understand story.

"The fourth-grade students learned a lot from the autism presentation," Onalaska teacher Sara Sanders said. "It helped our students to empathize and interact with students that have autism. It helped our students to recognize other ways people might express their thoughts and feelings. The students learned that autism isn't a disability but a different ability."

With a banner reading "Autism Awareness is Blooming," each student got a flower petal and had to write a positive note answering questions such as:

  • "What makes you a good friend?" 
  • "What is something you love about yourself?" 
  • "What is something kind you can say to someone else?" 

The students helped put the pedals on the banner, which, by the end of the day, was complete with flowers. 

The program Haller coordinates, Lewis County Parent to Parent, focuses on providing support services to families with children with disabilities. It hosts training and includes topics such as individualized education programs, the Developmental Disabilities Administration, guardianship, special needs trusts and transitions to adulthood. The organization is also partnered with community organizations such as the Summit Center for Child Development and Cornerstone Center for Child Development. 

Parent to Parent also offers support groups and recreation events such as Coffee and Conversation, PALS, Holland, Sibshops and a walking group. Recreation activities can include summer picnics, trips to pumpkin patches and Zoom cooking with a nutritionist. 

Parent to Parent is part of Reliable Enterprises, which was launched over 45 years ago as a program to serve the disability community. As Reliable grew, it added new programs, including Lewis County Parent to Parent in the late 1980s.

Haller said getting the correct diagnosis for a child can open various support services, therapies and interventions tailored to address specific needs, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy and educational accommodations. 

A diagnosis can also allow people to access programs such as the Developmental Disabilities Administration, waiver funds for respite care and Medicaid, and caregiving hours for those who need additional support.

"A formal diagnosis can also help families, caregivers, teachers and therapists understand the unique challenges and strengths associated with various diagnoses," Haller said. "It provides clarity on why certain behaviors occur and how to support the individual effectively. And maybe most importantly, at least in my opinion, it helps individuals understand their diagnosis and fosters self-awareness and self-acceptance. It can help them make sense of their experiences, advocate for their needs, and build confidence in themselves."

Haller said it's important for classmates to understand and normalize stimming (self-stimulation) and autism. 

"Understanding stimming and autism enables classmates to be more supportive and accommodating towards their neurodiverse peers," she said. "They can offer help when needed, respect personal boundaries and celebrate the unique strengths and contributions of everyone. By educating classmates on these topics, schools can reduce stigma and promote kindness and empathy among students."

Whitaker said the subject of autism is very near and dear to their hearts as they both have children on the spectrum.

"Shawna has been the coordinator for Parent to Parent for over four years now, and watching her help families at events and connect them with resources is inspirational," Whitaker said.

Haller and Whitaker had reached out to several schools with the idea of doing an autism presentation.

"Once we knew they were willing to allow us to speak, it did not take us long to create a presentation," Haller said. "With having autistic children of our own, we already had some ideas of what we want the world to know and understand about our kids and some of the challenges autism brings as well as strengths." 

Haller said that sharing their message with children seemed to be the best way to start making a positive impact.

"It's OK to be different but it's not OK to be mean," she said.

Onalaska School Counselor Casey Peters praised the presentation, saying kids could ask questions they may not have otherwise had the chance to.

"The thing that stood out the most to me was the little boy who usually has the hardest time sitting still, sat, and listened so intently — as if he related to everything they were saying," Peters said. "At the end of the book reading, he raised his hand and stated that he, himself, has autism."  

Onalaska teacher Beth Disney said that when presented with the idea of parents giving a talk on autism to students, the school jumped at the chance.

"Shawna was informative, well-spoken and allowed the students time to ask as many questions as they wanted," Disney said. "Cassie talked candidly about her own son, and everyone loved hearing her read the book she wrote. My fingers are crossed that Shawna and Cassie will come back every year." 

Onalaska teacher Alana Olson called the content engaging for elementary students and said that it was nice to hear from people who had personal experiences with autism that impacted daily life.

Parent to Parent events — not the school presentation — require an RSVP as some of them are limited in space and are meant for a specific group of people. Join the Parent to Parent email list by sending an email to shaller@reliableenterpirses.org or calling or texting Haller at 360-520-9299. Parent to Parent also has a Facebook group — Reliable Enterprises Parent Group — specifically for parents who have a child with a disability in Lewis County.

Haller and Whitaker have each been nominated for Inclusion Awards by the Lewis County Autism Coalition.