"It's hard to point out a cause-and-effect relationship," her father said. "But [her interaction with others] certainly has gotten easier."

Holman has taken years of research and experience to craft the PAW Pals program. She based her research from a similar program she conducted in a school-based setting six years ago in Montgomery County. Holman also ran an inclusion camp at Kennedy Kreiger Institute several years ago.

"This is what makes our world go round — having this tolerance and acceptance," Holman said. "These are life skills that will serve them way beyond their academic careers. We know that if you don't have social connections, you have a significantly decreased social life."

Holman's ultimate goal is to pilot the program on a schoolwide level.

"The school would have a universal PAW Pals program," Holman explained. "The whole school would work off of these issues of respect."

While many school systems offer specialized programs, inclusion classrooms, and co-teaching models, there is still room for improvement, according to Holman.

"Unfortunately, teachers are just not adequately prepared to meet the needs of autistic children," Holman said. "We have a little bit further to go. That comes back to training. Some [teachers] have had very limited training. A lot of the schools are supporting their teachers and sending them back to school. Hopefully we'll see continued improvement in the next couple of years."

One of the greatest benefits of the program is the effect it has on the typical-learning children, Holman said.

Both of Holman's children, Liam, 7, and Lily Wynn, 5, participate, and she said the program has affected her son's behavior in school, too.

"I've observed him taking a greater awareness and looking out for students [with autism]," Holman said. "It is important as a mother and program developer that this carries over to other settings as well."

Jenni Roth has also seen a difference in Avery's brother, Mason.

"He's proud of her," she said. "He's really getting it. Before he was like, 'She's a pain.' Now he knows that everyone is different. He is so proud of her."

Mason thinks that the program should be adopted elsewhere.

"It would help them communicate with their brother or sister with autism," he said.

"It's a place where we can hang out and play," Mason said. "We're slowly learning how to play with Avery. I think a year from now, I will be able to play whatever I want with her."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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