AURELIUS — Save the quiet buzz of scratching pens, the only sound in the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES gym Friday afternoon was Shawn Stewart’s voice.

The audience, made up of local educators hungry for information, took detailed notes on the data Stewart discussed and nodded in knowing appreciation for the stories he shared. The topic of the day-long conference focused on how to help students on the autism spectrum.

Sponsored by the Cayuga-Onondaga Teacher Center, the March 16 conference, dubbed “Working with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Comprehensive Seminar for Classroom Behavior,” was attended by 330 educators — from the Aurelius BOCES’ nine school districts, the Auburn Correctional Facility and the community — eager to learn how to better help and teach students with autism.

After discussing different autism spectrum disorders and discussing problems autistic children have in the classroom, Stewart, a psychologist, got into what teachers can do to help their autism spectrum students cope with stress and get more out of school.

Stewart, a professor at Tennessee’s Cumberland University, began the talk by explaining that researchers are almost positive autism is occurs when a fetus’ central nervous system is damaged early in utero, making it hard for the child later to observe and learn behavior. But despite knowing the cause, Stewart said researchers are still searching to understand what triggers the disorder.

Although there is still much researchers would like to know, Stewart gave teachers tips to better help their autistic students.

Explaining that autistic children are extremely sensitive to the world, Stewart encouraged teachers to identify what triggers the child’s panic attacks in order to alter the environment and mitigate the child’s behavior.

“You have to help them learn to cope and physically calm themselves down,” he said.

Along with taking a critical look at the classroom, Stewart encouraged educators to keep lines of communication open between doctors and parents to best help autistic students.

“What I need you to do is work collaboratively. We have to be working toward the same goals, in the same direction,” he said. “We need to have some level (of) congruence in these children’s lives.”

However, to better help autistic spectrum children, Stewart said schools need more resources. To gain that, he said educators needed to go to their legislators.

“They don’t listen to me because psychologists and counselors are written off as ‘they’re just in it for themselves,’” Stewart said. 

“They will listen to educators. If you talk in mass, they’ll listen.”

And speaking up for all students, Stewart said, was one of educators’ most important jobs.

“Advocate for your students,” he said. “Advocate for your school.”


Staff writer Samantha House can be reached at 282-2282 or

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