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A good influence: Influx of special needs kids a challenge

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For children who have special needs, after-school programs provide the specialized attention they need with their homework.

Students with attention deficit disorder or autism can come to Girls Inc. of Johnson County and have an adult walk them through a math problem or reading assignment. Other children participate in nightly work labs at the Boys and Girls Club of Franklin.

But helping children who have extra needs requires individual attention from adult mentors. That puts a greater strain on an already-stressed volunteer base.

“When it takes the entire session of one-on-one to help that child, it would be nice to have extra hands available,” said Sonya Ware-Meguiar, CEO of Girls Inc. of Johnson County.

In recent years, officials at local youth agencies have seen more special needs children in their programs. Kids struggling with conditions such as attention deficit disorder and autism require more time with individual mentors.

Though the organizations are always looking for volunteers, the influx of special needs children has made attracting new people even more vital, said Teresa McClure, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Franklin.

At the Boys and Girls Club, McClure has seen a steady rise in the number of children suffering from disorders along the autism spectrum.

For a child struggling with attention or sensory disorders, sitting down to do homework can be a daily struggle, she said. Something as simple as a worksheet of math problems can take hours.

Many of the students need someone to sit with them and provide one-on-one help in order to complete the assignments. But that requires more time and attention than volunteers can give, she said.

Ware-Meguiar has worked in the past with children and adults dealing with different disabilities. She has organized weekly sessions with her staff to help them work on techniques to help those kinds of conditions. She has educated volunteers on what causes outbursts and what might prevent them in the future.

If a child becomes overstimulated, a staff member might take them to a quiet room to let them settle down for a few minutes. Working with building-block toys can be relaxing to some children with autism, so Girls Inc. has a special area where kids can play.

She has a large plastic chair shaped like an outstretched hand that some kids find calming.

“A lot of things that trigger and cause behaviors in these kids are the same things that trigger bad behavior in all of us. Normal things like being tired, having a headache, not getting to eat. We want to know what kinds of things cause that,” Ware-Meguiar said.

To help meet the need, agency leaders have organized special training in how volunteers can help a child struggling with these types of conditions. They want to know how to best work with those kids.

Ware-Meguire has teamed up with Franklin Community School Corp. and the Riley Child Development Center to help instruct mentors.

The lessons touch on the behaviors that special needs children exhibit, how to recognize those and how to handle varying situations.

They get guidelines and tips on the ways to connect with those children and how to help them if they become overstimulated.

“All of our environments at times can be overstimulating. Anybody who gets overstimulated, gets agitated and aggravated, needs to find ways that they can focus and get calm,” Ware-Meguiar said.

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