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BENTONVILLE -- An area nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families that deal with autism has branched out into helping educators, too.

Autism Involves Me recently distributed its first round of AIM to Educate grants, designed to assist school employees who serve students with intellectual disorders. The group gave $22,566 to 21 teachers and therapists.

The biggest response to the grant opportunity came from Bentonville schools, said John Leachman, an Autism Involves Me official and father of a boy with autism. Leachman attended last week's Bentonville School Board meeting to present an oversized check for $16,527, representing the combined total of grants given to Bentonville employees.

"My hat's off to the amazing people who do really special things every day," Leachman said at the board meeting. "I can't put it into words enough. It means a lot, what you've done for my son, what you've done for all the kids."

Other grants went to employees in the Rogers, Springdale and Lincoln school districts.

Autism Involves Me has existed for several years. The group raises money locally and spends its money locally, Leachman said.

The group, made up of an all-volunteer staff and board of directors, offered financial assistance to families with autistic children. Last year the group decided it wanted to extend its impact.

"We want to put money back into the lives of people who are impacting the lives around them," Leachman said.

Autism is a developmental disability that affects social interaction, communication and behavior. About one in 68 children is identified as being on the autism spectrum, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Autism isolates affected families because it becomes hard for them to find others dealing with the same issues, said Paula Towle, executive director of Autism Involves Me and mother of an autistic boy.

Carrie Schweer, a speech language pathologist at Bentonville's Elm Tree Elementary School, received $1,000 from Autism Involves Me. She plans to use the money on Lego Education StoryStarter kits, which can be used as an alternative way to tell stories and engage students. Legos are durable, and the kits should last for years to come.

Elm Tree's number of autistic students usually ranges between 10 and 20, Schweer said.

"I'm planning to use the materials with all my students, but I think it will especially help those with autism," she said. "We have students who aren't diagnosed with autism but demonstrate a number of those tendencies."

She was grateful to the organization for opening the grant process up to therapists.

"Usually it's only classroom teachers who can write grants. This is huge they allow therapists to participate and they recognize we add value to the team at school," Schweer said.

Jenna Watson, a special education teacher at Bentonville's Washington Junior High School, received $1,500, the maximum amount granted by the organization.

"I am a junior high teacher, so the students I work with are in their early teens," Watson wrote in an email. "The needs of all students change at this age and especially those with autism."

She said she'd use her money to provide sensory items and activities to help with those changing needs.

Travis Riggs, School Board president, said at the board meeting that he appreciated the effort teachers went through to apply for the grant. The money they received is not much compared with the district's overall budget of nearly $140 million, but it's still important, he said.

"And the teachers who do extra work to apply for that stuff, it's not easy, it takes their time and effort to do it," Riggs said. "It helps our budget, helps their classroom and helps the district."

Autism Involves Me will hold its sixth annual walk and silent auction May 2 at Northwest Arkansas Community College. Another fundraiser, a 5-kilometer race, is scheduled for July 18.

Leachman hopes the community will continue to support the organization as it seeks to broaden its support of the community.

"We expect the need to be greater. We expect the response to be greater," he said.

AUTISM

Metro on 03/23/2015

Print Headline: Nonprofit aims to aid educators, therapists

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