SOUTH FORSYTH — Two swings. That was all there used to be on a playground used by students with severe autism at South Forsyth Middle School.
Thanks to a former student now in high school, the swings are no longer lonely.
“Last year, there were about 15 students, and that wasn’t enough. Even though sharing is a good quality to learn,” said Lucia Morris, a freshman at Lambert.
Morris organized and carried out a project for her Girl Scout Silver Award that led to the expansion of the playground into one specialized for children with autism. A ribbon cutting ceremony Friday signaled the opening of the sensory-sensitive outdoor leisure area.
Morris participated in the school’s peer buddy program during seventh and eighth grade, which pairs students in regular education classes with those in autism classes.
“The peer buddy program had a really big impact on me as I watched how much they’re working to overcome challenges, and I just decided I wanted to give back to them and help spread awareness,” Morris said.
Becoming eligible for the silver pin requires at least 50 hours toward a project. Morris clocked at least 70.
Those hours accumulated by researching equipment designed for children on the autism spectrum, pitching the idea to community businesses for funding and scheduling the installation of each playground feature.
Students now can hit two sculptures — one being the Chime-asour — that are tuned on a musical scale, with each section producing a different note.
They can explore the sand table, which Morris said helps with sensory and tactile barriers.
Or they can sit in the therapy hammock, a single-person chair that is “like a big hug. It wraps you up because sometimes they get overstimulated and want to be along.”
A balance beam hones in on motor skills and confidence, she said.
A storage shed is full of brightly colored toys and games. Some are squishy stress relievers. Others promote motor skills. Most are designed for the autism spectrum. All are fun.
Brenda Booker, a special education teacher who leads one of the classes, said she didn’t have to do anything for the project except “say OK.”
“She put a lot of thought into the sensory aspect and the idea of the space,” Booker said of Morris.
Booker has eight peer buddies in her class each year, each of whom work with two students at a time. The same goes for the other class.
“They’re on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Some of them are non-verbal, and they have sensory issues. They don’t go out for other classes,” Booker said.
Still, she said, not everyone who is a peer buddy goes as far as Morris.
“She has a compassionate heart. Some of them are just drawn to doing this,” she said. “She would come in and see I’m with these students, and she would scan the room and just go to the students who needed it, without me telling her what to do.”
Morris did not skip a beat Friday, encouraging her buddies to sit in the therapy hammock or to play music on the Chime-asour.
“Students like me are supposed to help them learn,” Morris said, “but I think they had the biggest impact on me.”