By Anthony KaDarrell Thigpen
The Autism Academy a school for children with autism located in Gilbert, AZ, wants to share Shawn Davis’ story.
Shawn Davis is an experienced principal that was clueless concerning her own child’s struggle with autism for 10 years. Despite earning a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Augusta State and a Master’s from Cambridge College, identifying signs of children with autism requires a specialized skillset. For years, the Munsey Indiana elementary school principal says she thought her son had disciplinary issues.
However, no matter how much she lectured him, despite harsh punishments, and regardless of social consequences, nothing changed, she explained. “Many teachers have no idea what to do with (undiagnosed) high-functioning kids with autism,” Davis explained. “It’s a different dynamic from ordinary disciplinary issues.” Initially, autism behavior can lead to public shame and embarrassment because of associated stigmatisms.
Her son, like many others, learned how to blend in amongst other students and pretend when necessary to fit in with his classmates, According to Davis. “Until I had the responsibility of sitting in on Individual Educational Plan (IEP) meetings, I didn’t think my son’s behavior was a big deal,” she said. “Afterward, I scheduled a meeting with my son’s school principal and requested a full battery of testing for autism.” She says when parents are in denial it only hurts the child in the end.
The test results were conclusive – Davis’ son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). At that moment, she embodied an undying passion to advocate for students with autism.
Davis is amongst a growing population of parents. Currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1-in-68 children are diagnosed with ASD – and the numbers are increasing rapidly.
As a result, it’s important for parents to learn how to navigate the system to avoid unwanted abuse, as opposed to ignoring the signs.
Children with autism, especially those who slip through the cracks without a proper diagnosis, are often misunderstood and mistreated.
“That’s why I’m determined to be an advocate for these kids,” Davis said. “I plan to give them the tools and strategies they need in order to maintain in this society.”
She relocated 2000 miles from Munsey, Indiana to Arizona to work as the principal for the Autism Academy in Peoria. The specialty school has 72 students from grades K-9, 5 classrooms, and 26 caring teachers and attentive staff members. Newcomers are encouraged to tour the school. Davis and her staff raise awareness, empowering parents to cope with skepticism and unnecessary embarrassment. They also go through extra measures to help new families adjust to their school environment.
Children with autism seldom succeed in mainstream general education classrooms. Some school districts do a great job including kids and adapting curriculum to meet special needs. Unfortunately, most schools do a miserable job identifying children with autism and working with such students with dignity thereafter. Even worse, children with autism are often targets for bully activity.
While there are pros and cons to private and public autism programs, Davis is positioned in the perfect place to fulfill her passion. At the Autism Academy she’s helping parents best educate their children with special needs. In addition, she’s enabling parents to understand how to identify children with autistic behavior from misbehavior, and how to handle both.