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Work program builds future skills
Autistic students 'take pride in' on-site learning
Students WEB 1
Normans Landing owner Bill Norman gets a hug from West Forsyth High student Sarah Funtal after Norman donated more than $1,800 to Wests autism awareness program. - photo by Jim Dean

On Thursdays during the school year, Norman’s Landing is filled with the music of Michael Jackson as students sing, dance and roll silverware.

Owner Bill Norman said the students with autism have been a joy to have at the restaurant the past two years.

“You can just tell they’re having a good time and enjoying what they’re doing,” Norman said. “They love getting out of the school and being amongst people.”

For the past four years, a program at West Forsyth High School has connected autistic students with several area businesses, said Stephanie Fletcher, autism teacher.

Over the past two years, the students have helped at the restaurant each Thursday.

“They love going there,” Fletcher said. “It’s a routine for them, and these kids love routines.”

The students also enjoy seeing familiar faces from week to week as they develop a comfort level with the staff and the atmosphere of a job, she said.

Learning the skills of a job and how to function in a work environment will help the students in their future pursuits after graduating, most at age 22, she said.

Norman said he’s been impressed with what the 10 students have done this year.

“They take pride in what they’re doing, if it’s folding the linen or rolling the silverware or cleaning the tables,” he said.

In fact, Norman said, the students usually do better at rolling silverware than his staff because they pay attention to details.

Their presence led Norman, a long-time philanthropist, to select the school’s autism awareness mission as recipient of the restaurant’s spring ping pong tournament.

The charity event raised more than $1,800 to go toward the program’s purchase of tablet computers for
student use.

Fletcher said the tablets work as sensory equipment, providing a variety of learning benefits for autistic students like motor skills and communication.

This school year, students at West formed a campaign to spread autism awareness.

The campaign titled “Are You Aware?” started with a video by two students, which Fletcher said was shown at the Georgia Autism Conference and sold numerous copies to other schools.

The students also took their mission elsewhere, including Lambert and Forsyth Central.

At one of the high schools, Fletcher said a student with Asperger’s Syndrome was inspired by the video to stand up and tell his story in class.

“All the students gave a standing ovation,” she said. “That was huge.”

For the work program, Fletcher said getting the students out in the community has helped with awareness.

Norman said the students are learning skills at the restaurant, and his staff is developing relationships with people they may have never met otherwise.

“The biggest thing I guess we’ve learned is that they’re regular people just like everybody else,” he said.