Ambassador Highlight: Clinton Public School’s Special Services Team
April 15, 2020
Getting children with autism involved in their communities is no easy task. It takes more than just the will of a child’s family; it takes the broader understanding of an entire community. Dr. Jenine Kastner, Special Services Director at Clinton Public School, wanted to help foster this understanding by helping to start a new tradition this year, one that gets Clinton businesses intimately involved.
Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the school planned to partner with the Rotary Club of Clinton this month to help businesses develop a better understanding of patrons with autism. The activities would have involved students from specialized programs taking walking trips into town to distribute information about autism awareness, decorating storefronts or windows, and helping to advertise various sensory-friendly events that business will be sponsoring.
“We kept hearing from families not getting out in communities. We had to find a way to help change this,” Dr. Kastner said.
The new initiative isn’t much of a stretch for Dr. Kastner. During her 24-year career in special education, she has consistently emphasized inclusiveness, particularly when it comes to interaction between special education students and general education students. She says Clinton Public School practices “reverse inclusion” from an early age to prevent misconceptions early in a student’s development.
After a while, “the general education students just get it,” Dr. Kastner said.
“Until they shared a classroom, some of my students thought they (special education students) couldn’t talk,” said Elizabeth Hedden, a general education teacher who works closely with special services.
The shared classroom extends to regular training sessions for the parents of special education students. Yes, they learn strategies to assist their children, but they also tend to feel less overwhelmed once they meet other parents of children who have similar challenges, Hedden explained.
Dr. Kastner first became involved in educating students with autism when she was a high school student giving horse-riding lessons. She eventually decided to set up a horse-riding camp specifically for children with special needs.
“I always knew I would work with students with special needs,” she said.
Establishing this kind of interconnectedness has come naturally to a place like Clinton, according to Kastner. The school is just up the hill from the center of the quaint river town in Hunterdon County, and a trip to visit its businesses is just a quick walk away. Many of the school’s teachers live in town, so there’s already a bond between town and school. One restaurant, The Towne Diner, even makes special Autism Awareness pancakes during April.
In this case, familiarity breeds understanding and the ability to relate to each other, which falls in line with a mantra that Hedden frequently stresses to her students: “We all have something we struggle with.”
CPS and the community are doing what they can to salvage the events they had planned, with the possibility of having a big awareness event in late spring or summer.
“For the community and businesses, we are still going to create information sheets and messages to share with the businesses, but will distribute electronically. The businesses will still hold sensory-friendly events once all of this clears. So we are just rethinking and revamping, but still sending the message out there,” Kastner said.
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