Autistic students STEP forward in SD 843 program
The celebration of holidays is difficult for some children to grasp.
But autistic students in Lincoln-Way Area Special Education School District 843’s Structured Teaching Education Program, or STEP, were gobbling up all the holiday fun and food they could last Friday during a Thanksgiving feast at Mokena Intermediate School.
“When we would celebrate holidays before, they didn’t get it. But now they are really excited about it,” Irene Costello, of Frankfort, said of her 11-year-old twins, Mike and John. “And to see them excited about it is really cool.”
Under the direction of STEP teacher Jessica Pascarella, students prepared for weeks for their fourth annual feast. They made decorations, shopped for food and practiced their table manners.
“These are skills that will transfer into daily life,” Costello said.
A key part of the holiday dinner was sharing it with family and friends. Prior to eating, the students met with their Circle of Friends, as they do every Friday afternoon — 10 STEP students gather with 10 Mokena Intermediate School students for games and crafts. The Circle of Friends helps STEP students learn social and friendship skills and to share, take turns and have fun together.
While the school’s students model appropriate social skills, they also gain a better understanding of special needs students, Pascarella said. Rather than point out their differences, they learn that they have a lot in common, including that they all like to play games and have fun.
On this day, they glued scarecrows and turkeys, strung friendship bracelets and played a holiday bingo game, with the Mokena Intermediate School students patiently providing assistance.
Social worker Kim Grafton said she has a list of 60 general education students who want to participate in the Circle of Friends program.
“I really like spending time with them,” student Nicole Bieker, 10, said of her STEP friends. “It’s really fun. No one realizes that they are really nice.”
As they dined on kid-friendly foods such as pizza, hot dogs and mac and cheese prepared by the staff, Nicole gently assisted Mike
Costello, placing a napkin over his lap “so things won’t fall in your lap,” she told him. Mike said the Circle of Friends was his favorite part of the day.
As they celebrated Thanksgiving with their children and the school staff, parents said they were thankful for the progress their children have made in STEP.
“We love it. This is one of the best settings,” Marie Ventura said.
“I love how they mix with students from other classes. They are happy and excited about coming to school. The staff is great,” Costello said.
Erika Lounsbury, of Frankfort Square, said her son, Kade, has been in STEP for two years and is reading and doing math.
“I didn’t expect him to be as far along as he is. We are blessed to be here,” she said.