GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — A crowd of people in the gym at Northeast Wyoming BOCES watched Danny match cutout shapes and colors and put them into folders.
The 60-plus group of professionals had come from across Wyoming for classes, learning teaching methods for autistic children.
Danny waddled over to the desk where his instructors had left him sticky notes. The notes were supposed to keep him on task, but then something at the edge of the desk caught his eye.
Dorothy McNee, a psycho-educational therapist from Charlotte N.C., pointed back to the sticky notes.
Danny got back to work.
McNee and Nancy Dartnall, a Ph.D. specializing in autism, were demonstrating how the University of North Carolina's TEACCH method could be used to keep autistic students on a task without distraction. It's an essential skill that autistic children will need to navigate a world where distractions abound. Eventually, this ability could help them hold down jobs and live independently.
Independence was the whole idea behind the sticky notes, which form a "schedule cue," giving the students instructions so that a teacher doesn't have to.
"When the students are working independently, that frees you up to work with other students," McNee said. "Just cue them back to the work and you don't get into power struggles."
Those methods could make it easier for teachers when BOCES starts classes for its 14 autistic students at the end of the month.
Danny won't be one of those students, though. Actually, "Danny" is Brett Pownall, a BOCES teacher called on to act the part of an autistic child.
Pownall, with a shaved head, beard and "Big Daddy" shirt, got into the performance.
"Ooh, Lookie!" he exclaimed when he saw the activities set up for him. There were some laughs in the room.
Later, he glanced back over his shoulder to Dartnall, looking for approval, until she directed him back to the sticky notes.
Pownall wasn't hamming it up. He based his performance on more than a decade of work with autistic children at BOCES. Distractions come easily and the BOCES staff were already doing many of the things that McNee and Dartnall were suggesting, he said.
"What I was doing was what we do on a regular basis," Pownall said.
The cues and many of the activities in the room were aimed at accommodating a different way of thinking, Dartnall said. How well someone can do a task often depends on the way someone does it.
That includes spelling. Dartnall and McNee challenged the group to try to spell out a list of words rapid-fire, using their non-dominant hand to write with. The words included: "harass" ''dagger" ''embarrass," and "autism."
Looking over their lists, the teachers found that the words they had managed to write legibly had a lot more spelling errors than they would have ordinarily had.
Just as it's easy for a right-handed person to write with that hand, Dartnall said that cues and clear instructions could make things easier for autistic people.
"A handicap is defined by the society," she said.
And there are plenty of successful cases to back that up. A video used in the presentation showed a couple of adults who grew up with autism and held jobs — ones that gave them a clear system and order for how to do their work.
"Structure helps everyone, not just people with autism," Dartnall said.
Along with cues, McNee and Dartnall showed their audience some ways to make toys help autistic children learn association and ideas such as matching.
The teachers used shoe boxes to create mounts for organizing blocks.
Playing with toys and other leisure activities might come instinctively to a non-autistic child, but not to one with autism who might need to have the rules of play explained to them.
Cody Tillard, a mother of a 4-year-old boy with autism, finished building a matching exercise with plastic foam cups marked red, blue and yellow. There were toy cars of those colors for him to match.
Tillard had traveled from Glenrock to attend the conference, which she called "really helpful."
She said she uses a system similar to the schedule cues at home, but she could use the things she learned in the class to help structure her son's daily routines.
She plans to enroll her son in kindergarten and was glad to get more information about how to help him out with challenges.
"I'm very grateful to have the opportunity," she said.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com