CLEVELAND, Ohio - A new school building in Cleveland let’s students go swimming, play in the sand and jump on a jungle gym.
Sunbeam may sound like a playground, but it’s actually a highly-beneficial school for children with autism.
Since an autistic child’s surroundings can really impact their ability to learn, the staff says they are thrilled to have this new access.
Penny Merritt has been an intervention specialist for nearly three decades, but her focus is now in the autism unit at Sunbeam.
“We come in and we have our routines, we focus on those goals and just try to get the kids to keep moving up,” Merritt said.
Working with the children is something she says is a rewarding challenge.
"I have to constantly remember to respond and not react,” Merritt said. “When they escalate you don’t want to escalate with them instead you have to find your inner calm to calm them.”
Sunbeam is accepting and open to all children. There are students with autism, visual or hearing impairments, mobility issues and some who are non-verbal.
“I work with kids who don’t talk or have difficulty using words and we come up with solutions for them to communicate,” said Aimee Cummins, who is a Speech Language Pathologist at Sunbeam. “We can create buttons for them to push or we can create something even more complicated and visual.”
Sunbeam is a school in Cleveland that has been around for years but they all just moved to a brand new building this Autism Awareness Month. There are 432 students from Pre-K through 8th grade who are now experiencing everything the new building has to offer.
“I just feel so fortunate to have this great new space and it’s so fun coming to work now,” Cummins said. “We have all these resources and I’m really excited for our kids that they have the space that they deserve.”
From a sensory room to a pool to a motor room, Sunbeam works with children anywhere on the spectrum in a fun, yet educational way.
“We have smaller rooms if we want to work on something quiet, more of a drawing or writing activity,” Mary Jo Bravo-Giancola said. She is an occupational therapist at the school. “We also have the large space for movement activities and a sensory room so there are many options for the children depending on how they feel that day. We are able to meet their needs.”
The school has skilled therapists who know what autistic children need and how to address their changing needs throughout the day. They work with them in the pool, the sensory room and the motor room.
So why is it so beneficial for children with autism to have this type of setting?
“Children with autism have a lot of different sensory needs because of the way their brains react to noises or light or sound or being tired or hungry,” Bravo-Giancola said. “There’s so many different things that happen in their environment that they have difficulty regulating so they need the time and space to move in a way that helps to calm their bodies so they can go back into the classroom and be more successful.”
Katrinka Dean is Sunbeam’s principal and knows every single student by name. She refers to them as her babies.
“I just appreciate the families who entrust us with their children,” Dean said. “I appreciate the teachers who really go above and beyond to try and create the wonderful experience for our children and I appreciate the kids who come here every day and try.”
But as for who is teaching whom? Well, that’s still up for debate.
“They teach me so much about life and how you get through life with what you’ve got,” Cummins said. “I’m trying to teach them, but they’re really teaching me.”
Bravo-Giancola agreed. “I just feel very lucky to do this and work with kids with autism,” she said. “I think they have so much to teach us and if we can look at the world through their eyes for a minute, even if they don’t have language to tell us, they have so many things they see that we don’t see.”
Some of the students actually get access to equipment they don’t have at home. For example, one student, Deshon, was born at just 25 weeks. Doctors had little to no hope for his future however here he is 13 years later! Deshon is non-verbal and has mobility issues. The school has a bike designed specifically for kids who need a little extra support. Deshon would love to have one of the bikes at home but the it’s not covered by insurance. They have set up a GoFundMe account for Deshone.