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Scenes from Suwanee: Theresa Wiist finds her passion in special education

Staff Photo: John Bohn Theresa Wiist, a special education teacher at Level Creek Elementary School in Suwanee, conducts a reading exercise with students Abby Creamer, 11, left, and Abby Hartman, 10, center, both are fifth grade students.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Theresa Wiist, a special education teacher at Level Creek Elementary School in Suwanee, conducts a reading exercise with students Abby Creamer, 11, left, and Abby Hartman, 10, center, both are fifth grade students.

Bringing students together is something Theresa Wiist is used to doing as a teacher for autistic children at Level Creek Elementary in Suwanee. But she said it will be more special for World Autism Awareness Day, which is Monday, to honor those with the disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Since spring break starts this week though, Wiist said Level Creek will be celebrating the week of April 23.

"We're actually doing a whole week for autism awareness. We'll be selling T-shirts and doing little fundraisers for the kids," she said. "Anything to just promote that awareness and to get the whole school involved. My kids and I will be on the morning news show at school just letting all the kids know what's going on."

The week makes the teacher excited because she found her calling for teaching autistic children while in college at Georgia Southern. After graduation, she started interviewing for jobs in Gwinnett because her husband was from here. Wiist said when she discovered Level Creek, she knew it was the school for her.

"I fell in love with Level Creek," she said. "It was only open one year when I started here and it was beautiful and everyone was so welcoming."

Wiist's love for special education led her to starting the autistic program at Level Creek in 2006. She said she's happy to see how much the program has grown over the years.

"It was cool to build the program and we've expanded," she said. "We only had one class when I started and now we have three autism classes here."

Wiist said she credits the technology Level Creek has available in helping her students learn valuable life lessons such as social skills. She said video modeling has proven to be successful in the classroom.

"We video our students and then let them watch it and find the things that they did well or things that they need to work on like making eye contact or looking at the speaker because they don't realize when you're just talking to them, but when they can see it, that really helps," she said.

Wiist said another big help for Level Creek has been the North Gwinnett Schools Foundation, which donated $3,000 this year to help the school build a sensory room. These rooms are created for special-needs children so they can explore and develop senses and skills in a controlled environment through touch, sound and light. She said she feels fortunate to have so much help from the county.

"Gwinnett has way more resources for autism than other counties," she said. "It's so nice to work for a county that offers such intense and differentiated classes for students with autism because some counties lump all of the students together."

With 11 autistic students in her class, Wiist said they all "mainstream" into regular classrooms, which means they're together learning with non-special-needs kids. While Wiist said the other students are very welcoming, she always goes into the regular classroom before her students mainstream to answer questions and talk about what might happen.

"I explain things they may see from my students," she said. "And I explain what's OK and what is not OK for my students and I think that that helps. I'm like 'Just throw it at me, you can ask, 'Why do they do this?' 'Why do they flap their hands?' or 'Why do they not like me to touch them?'"

Along with World Autism Awareness Day, Wiist said she's also pleased about the Light It Up Blue campaign, which is an international movement to raise awareness for autism. Famous landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House in Australia and the Empire State Building in New York will light up their structures with blue lights to show their support. Wiist said the fact that the whole world, and not just the county is involved, is an amazing thing.

"It's awesome because this is such a pretty new disability that people are still learning about," she said. "It's kind of like the breast cancer awareness now we're making it available to the public to understand and become more aware of it."

Tori Boone, who lives in Suwanee, is a copy editor for the Daily Post. Email her at tori.boone@gwinnettdailypost.com.