Working with autistic children is like trying to solve a puzzle where some of the pieces are hidden from view. It is Erin Quarnstrom's mission to put the puzzle pieces together and help students with autism learn in a way that best suits them.
"They have so much inside," said Quarnstrom, who is part of an autism team in the Champaign school district that helps teachers better work with autistic students. "I like to be that bridge to help them get that out. To help them express themselves and better understand the world around them.
"When you establish a relationship with a person with autism, once you establish trust, you can open so many doors together."
This week Quarnstrom will be traveling to India, where she'll share what she knows about teaching students with autism with parents of autistic children. She is one of five trainers going with AACTION (Autism Awareness Campaign Through International Organizations Networking), a nonprofit organization that provides free medical, educational and diagnostic training to parents and educators.
The trainers will work with children from age 6 to 15 in India. They leave for New Delhi on Thursday and return on Dec. 12.
Quarnstrom began her career as a speech pathologist, and her first job was teaching in a classroom where most of the children were autistic. She fell in love with working with them.
"I felt like I understood and I connected with these kids," she said.
She also helps parents understand the needs of their children, and to deal with the issues that arise from autism.
In addition to working in the Champaign school district, Quarnstrom provides training locally through The Autism Program, a statewide grant-funded initiative that provides services based on research and the best practices for educating autistic children.
The training demonstrates "structured teaching," or a way to set up a classroom, schedules and activities for students that recognizes how students with autism experience the world. There is a heavy emphasis on visual organization, which autistic children typically respond to better than verbal instructions, she said.
Classrooms may include a schedule posted with pictures of what a student should be doing at a particular time of the school day, for example.
During a five-day training session, such as she'll do in India, Quarnstrom will spend two days setting up a classroom, creating activities and teaching how to adapt materials for students with autism. Then, for the next three days, she'll work with the students using the techniques she demonstrated in the first two days.
She'll be working with parents rather than teachers in India.
"Children with autism don't typically have a place in schools in India," Quarnstrom said. "The schools that do exist tend to be created by parents, so the teachers are parents with no experience. They've been doing their best with what they have. They're so thankful to have someone who's helping them understand their kids a little better.
"It's really going to put my teaching abilities to the test, because it's going to be fairly non-verbal," she continued, adding that most of the students and parents have some English language skills.
"Every training I do, I'm nervous," Quarnstrom said. "You never know who is going to be in your group. Some people are resistant to new methods. Can you make a connection (with the children) and develop trust in just three days? And have others see the value? Will they see somebody with autism go from being panicked and having anxiety to really understanding?
"I'm always concerned with reaching people," she said.
But she always comes away learning something new, even when the teaching has been a struggle. She's looking forward to hearing the ideas and viewpoints of the parents she'll meet in India.
"I'm excited to see what I will learn," Quarnstrom said.
More on AACTION
For more information about AACTION’s autism training in India, see the blog on its website, at www.aactionautism.org/blog. The trainers hope to post video blogs about their training during their trip to India. The website already has an interview posted with Erin Quarnstrom, the Champaign teacher who is one of the trainers.