AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF)– April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it’s said to be a developmental disorder, because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. One in 54 children are identified having ASD.

As Autism Awareness Month continues, we are getting a closer look at a program here in Georgia and the way some parents are helping their children gain confidence and meet goals.

Georgia Connections Academy has been serving students for 10 years.

The goal is to create a high-quality educational experience that keeps students motivated and engaged in a safe, virtual learning environment. in addition to academics, teachers focus on emotional well-being and social development, working closely with families to help students determine how they learn best.

A question many parents of children who are on the autism spectrum ask is how students can get the skills, and confidence, needed to complete their education.

Georgia Connections Academy is a tuition-free, online public school for students in grades 5-12. It is authorized by the state charter school commission of Georgia. Sabine Claster is the Assistant Director of Special Education at the academy… she joins Jennie as we continue to observe Autism Awareness and Acceptance month.

Jennie: As a Special Education Instructor, why do you think it’s so important to have an Autism Awareness Month?

“Well, autism is one of those disabilities that may or may not be visible to people. It has a lot to do with sensitive issues, with social issues, with communication. And there’s such a wide range. That’s why, we’re talking about the autism spectrum- there’s such a wide range of ability. And people, a lot of times, are not aware what kind of difficulties our children with autism have.”

Jennie: You know, I have a niece who is on the autism spectrum. She has Asperger’s. And it’s so interesting because she’s very, very intelligent, but she doesn’t handle social situations.

“And that is so very true for so many, many people with autism. They’re being viewed as capable and they are very high-functioning, but people seem to forget about the social aspect, of how important it is in when you’re out in school, when you’re out in the workforce, when you’re with people together, if you are socially awkward or don’t know how to react to social stimuli, that can really isolate you and even make it very hard for young adults to find job opportunities.”

Jennie: Absolutely, absolutely. I like how you say it can isolate you, because that is certainly true. Now, how can an online education help people who are on the autism spectrum?

“Well, one thing that I think everybody agrees on is that children with autism, they’re all different. They all have different needs. And the autism is expressed differently in their lives. So what we can do in an online environment is really individualize their instruction based on what their needs are. If there are students that are just socially very anxious and are basically socially handicapped, but are really well with academics, in an online environment, that anxiety is taken out of the equation and they can really feel success academically, while we can then therapeutically work on the socialization part.”

Jennie: Do you see it as sort of a way to, an equalizer for them and their peers?

“Most definitely, because socializing goes on in online education every day, because we come together as a class online, and our groups of students, our classes, they communicate with each other. And when you look at children with awkward social behavior in the physical classroom, they’re being isolated or not being included. However, in the online environment, it is not this apparent that they’re socially awkward, and they can really participate without having a preconceived notion of who they are. And it gives them a sense of inclusion.”

Jennie: The Georgia Connections Academy, as I understand, is a free online school for children on the spectrum in grades five through 12. How does it work?

“Yeah, so they’re a free online school for everybody. And, all over the state of Georgia, we have students, they do school at home. It is not considered homeschooling because we are a public school. We have certain requirements just like every other physical school building. We provide the curriculum, and the students log into their class on the computer and they have a schedule. They know exactly what they need to do. They meet with teachers every day. They’re not with a teacher online every single hour of the day, but they certainly have opportunities to speak or to get help from a teacher all throughout the day. There is some synchronous instruction every day. And specifically for our students with disabilities, we have additionally two hours every day or four days a week where they could come to what we call a study hall.”

Jennie: Really?

“A Special Education teacher is available, and they can get help there with prioritizing, with how to find work that they need to do, and if they need help with the content. So they’ll always have help available.”

Jennie: Is the goal to help the child find meaningful work, be self-sufficient, self-reliant? What is the end goal?

“Well, the mission of Georgia Connection Academy is to provide a virtual education and experience so that our students can move into higher education or into the workplace and be successful. And with that in mind, we have our students with disabilities and also with autism, we have transition plans that are part of the IEP, and we try to connect them with other services as they grow into young adulthood and graduate from our school. It’s not only graduating from here, which is that big, important step, obviously, graduating with a high school diploma, but also further out helping them with receiving services, knowing where to find services, and learning how to advocate for themselves and giving them the connection so that they can go into whatever goal they have in life.”

Jennie: Right, so you have some who go on to higher education, some who may go into vocational rehab and vocational training. So you’re working with them on an individual basis?

“Most definitely. And we had several students who were able to do dual enrollment. We had somebody specifically who graduated with high school diploma and an associates degree at the same time. So there are those opportunities, and especially for our higher-functioning students where they can do that. But also we have students that are not as high-functioning, that is a great place here to support when they have their parents or their caretaker at home that can help them. So it’s not only those high-functioning students that we serve, but also those with lower capabilities and where they can be at home where they are well-taken-care-of, the parents can be involved with getting them online and make an education there.”

You can find out more about the Georgia Connections Academy by visiting their website or by calling 1-800-382-6010.