Lambertville Public School’s autism students return for the summer session next week to find new lighting, the walls painted dark blue and other changes in their classroom.
Change is typically difficult for children on the autism spectrum, but these are designed to lessen distractions and boost learning.
The impetus for the changes came from custodian Jeff Munsey after he saw how upset one autistic girl became last December when a light in the classroom had gone out.
Munsey resolved to make the classroom a better learning space for the children. He set about learning all he could about autistic children, what makes them tick and what sends them off kilter. Then he began finding businesses and individuals to donate materials, time and money to get the work done.
On June 17, the school board gave Munsey permission to paint the room, replace fluorescent fixtures with LED lights, install a window air conditioner to move the compressor noise outside, and hang window shades.
The idea was to “sanitize the room of any distractions,” Munsey said today, June 27. “It took me six months to get the ducks lined up."
This morning, Munsey and a half dozen volunteers began spreading dark blue paint on the walls with supplies donated by Niece Lumber. By the time the children return next week, the lights, shades and air conditioner will be installed, donated or paid for by others, including Home Depot and the Lambertville-New Hope Kiwanis.
“His initiative was just incredible,” said Superintendent Michael Kozaks while wielding a paint brush.
Much of what Munsey learned came from conversations with Gary Weitzen, executive director of Parents of Autistic Children; Suzanne Buchanan, director of Autism New Jersey; and Jonathan Saben, director of the state Office of Autism.
Autistic children’s senses are heightened, Weitzen said in a telephone interview today. “They are assaulted by (common) sounds and smells and sights.” For children with autism trying to learn, Weitzen said, the hum of fluorescent lights is like a loud buzzing in the ear.
“This sets them up for success the rest of their lives."Reducing sensory distractions allows the students to give their full attention to instruction, Weitzen said. LED lights don’t flicker and they don’t hum. Dark blue is calming. Moving the indoor air conditioner compressor outdoors removes the “loud jolt” the students experience when it kicks on or shuts down. Adding shades to the windows enables the teacher to reduce outside distractions such as a ground hog or someone mowing the lawn, Munsey said.
Arielle Staubs, who teaches the four third- and fourth-graders in the class, is convinced the changes will make a tremendous difference.
Last summer, the class was taught in a yellow room at the front of the building, she said. There was the general hubbub of being in the middle of things and delivery truck noise from the street.
When the class moved into its present room it was already a light blue. But even that had a dramatic impact, Staubs said.
“The overall calming effect was huge,” she said.
Other New Jersey schools may have designed new classrooms to meet the needs of autistic students, said Weitzen, who called POAC, “the largest provider of autistic education in the state.” But this is the first time a district has made physical changes to an existing classroom to make it better for the students, he said. “I would have heard about it."
Moreover, he said, to have the initiative come from the custodian and to have everybody involved, “It’s incredible. That’s a district I’d want my son to be in.”
Munsey knows no child with autism outside of those in Staubs’ class, he said, nor does he know any family with an autistic child, but he's adamant about giving them a fair chance to learn.
“This sets them up for success the rest of their lives,” he said.