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Thursday, 05 January 2012 03:48

WCU students help children with autism

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A local fly-fishing guide and recreational therapy students at Western Carolina University teamed up recently to provide a fly-fishing outing for children with autism.

Jennifer Hinton, WCU associate professor of recreational therapy, organized the event. Alex Bell, retired principal of Smoky Mountain High School and the owner of AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, served as “coach” on the project, working with the class throughout the semester.

Through the Adaptive Fly Fishing Institute, Bell teaches adaptive fly fishing and also teaches fellow instructors in the practice. There is limited research on adaptive fly fishing, Hinton said, but the WCU students theorized it would benefit children on the autism spectrum physically, psychologically and socially.

The fly fishing was adapted to the children’s abilities. For instance, when teaching the children to cast, the instructors asked them to aim for hula hoops on the ground rather than the more typical method of using numbers on an imaginary clock face.

“It was amazing the difference once we put down a visual cue. It improved their focus so much,” Bell said.

Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function, according to the National Autism Association. Individuals with autism can show marked differences — thus, they are on the “autism spectrum” — but typically they have difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities. The NAA reports that the disorder affects one in 150 people in the U.S. and is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls.  

In honor of the event, staff of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocked a section of Cullowhee Creek with about 40 brook trout from the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery in Brevard.

“We’re here to provide angling opportunities for various people, and we were proud to step up and make that happen,” said David Deaton, a WRC fish production supervisor.

A week later, Kathy Ralston said her son Isaac was still talking about it.

“He’s looked forward to fly fishing since we moved here,” said Ralston, who with her husband, Bill, an orthopedic surgeon at MedWest Harris, and their four children relocated to Jackson County from Kansas City, Mo., in August 2010. Though it’s unusual for children on the autism spectrum, the Ralstons have always had Isaac, their oldest child, participate in group activities such as organized soccer.

But participation has gotten more difficult as Isaac has grown older and the physical and emotional disparities between Isaac and his peers have become more pronounced. Ralston and other parents expressed a desire for more recreational opportunities for their children with autism spectrum disorder, such as the fly-fishing event.

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