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Unique Solutions: Special kids have special needs, even on summer vacation

Hunter Burns and his mother, Vonda Burns, swing on the front porch at their house in Bethel Springs. Hunter, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is a technology whiz and, like many his age, enjoys spending time on his computer. Staff photo by Emily Pitts

Hunter Burns is a remarkable teenager. He creates his own computer programs in his spare time. He loves movies and can name the cast and crew of all of his favorites. He can list the names of every president of the United States chronologically — forwards and backwards — and then tell you the names of their wives. 

Hunter is also among the 13 percent of U.S. children who have developmental disabilities and one of 26 children in the McNairy County school system who are affected with autism. 

Specifically, Hunter has Asperger’s syndrome.

Thousands of students around the country are beginning their summer with a variety of different activities, but for some like Hunter, the transition from school to summer vacation is harder to make.

Last year, Hunter went through a period of acute anxiety as the school year and normal school routine suddenly ended. According to Hunter’s mother, Vonda Burns, getting medical help for him was difficult.

Finally, they were able to find a doctor who agreed to help Hunter. He told the family that this kind of anxiety was common in children of Hunter’s age with Asperger’s syndrome. He suggested that Hunter attend a camp in Memphis for children with autism.

“Being with the other children gave him something he’d never had before,” said Mrs. Burns. With a little help, Hunter was soon back to normal.

So far this summer, Hunter is doing well and has been enjoying his time off school.

“He’s come a long, long way,” said Vonda. “I’m very proud. As a mother, I just want him to have a life and be happy and fulfilled. That’s what every parent wants.”

She believes that open dialogue in the community about children with special needs and the unique challenges they face both during the summer and school year would be beneficial to everyone. 

“We need to get more information to teachers and to the public. Knowledge truly is power. The more words we can get out there to explain this, the better it will be for everybody.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that an average of 1 in 110 children in the U.S has an autism spectrum disorder.

About 600 students in the local school system receive some type of service from the Department of Special Education every year, according to Dr. Sue Prather, director of McNairy County Schools’ Department of Special Education. This figure includes every type of special needs children, including the intellectually gifted.

The Department of Special Education offers an extended school year program through the month of June for the elementary special needs children who have trouble retaining knowledge during the summer months when they are not at school, according to Prather. Students enrolled in the program continue to work on meeting the goals set in their Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. There are currently about 25 students enrolled in this program.

There are also outside summer programs offered to special needs children in McNairy County. There are several camps in the Memphis and Nashville areas, and even a few summer programs in Jackson for children with a variety of different needs.

“All of these kids have something to offer,” stated Mrs. Burns. “We just need to figure out what it is and help them get there.”

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