For interdisciplinary teams of teachers, assistants, therapists and administrators, understanding what works for children with autism may sometimes seem elusive. Why is one child progressing in therapy, but not transferring these skills to the classroom? What was different in classroom supports for a child who has responded suddenly to circle time? Often even the questions remain unasked, let alone answered as the day-to-day classroom activities go on.
Recently, two classroom teams supporting the education of two boys who have autism sat down to discuss what has been working for these children. They were brought together in order to celebrate their successes and learn from their work. Their stories serve as a resource and inspiration for other teams of educators and clinicians seeking to do their best in supporting children with autism. Their stories reinforce the importance of team communication and consistent implementation of research-based practices and leadership.
Ben is a preschool boy with autism who has been in Antoinette’s classroom for almost two years. At the beginning, the classroom and clinical team experienced Ben as a boy who “couldn’t get out of his own skin”- flailing, screaming and slamming dolls on the floor. Camille, the assistant in his classroom would leave each day exhausted from pulling out all the tools she knew for supporting Ben. Today, Ben is using a visual schedule to navigate the school environment. He is using a visual placemat at mealtime to make choices and ask for help. He’s a “smart little boy” who is checking in with his assistant to gain more information about which center time he should participate in first. He’s a nonverbal boy with autism rolling cars across the classroom rug and rocking and pretending to feed dolls.
What has worked for Ben? According to his teacher, assistants, and clinicians the following have been central in Ben’s progress: (a) the team being on the same page, (b) incorporating visual supports using structured teaching, aided language stimulation approaches and positive behavior supports, and (c) using the expertise of all the members on the team.
The three instructional methods discussed by the team have been incorporated into classrooms within The Shield Institute for many years. Structured teaching methodologies, developed by Division TEACCH at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, utilize our understanding of how children with autism experience the world. Through this understanding of the culture of autism, the child’s learning is supported through the strong use of visuals and environmental structure. Aided language stimulation, developed by Carol Goossens’ is a methodology for supporting the communication of young children through visual support. Positive behavior support seeks to understand the purpose of a child’s negative and positive behavior and assess those strategies that will support behaviors, which enhance learning and independence. Along with expertise and a common mission these instructional approaches have proven to be most effective for Ben, as well as other children that attend The Shield Institute.
Antoinette, the teacher, says that everyone being on the same page has been critical to Ben’s and the other students’ success. She and the other team members speak of the importance of having classroom and clinical members who believe in the power of visual supports and sensory approaches for children with autism. For example, Ben’s occupational therapist took the time to evaluate his needs and create a sensory diet. While this diet has changed over time as Ben has changed, the classroom team has become proficient at knowing when Ben needs sensory support; For example, when he needs to sit on a bounce ball in order to attend to the task – like sitting in circle time with the rest of his peers. In addition, the team believes that Ben has progressed quickly because he now is able to communicate his wants and needs. Whereas before he would snatch at what he wanted and use his teacher and assistants as tools, now he uses visual supports (such as schedules, first/then boards, mealtime placemats, etc.) to make himself heard. Both assistants, Irene and Camille, speak of the positive behavior supports they use as seamless and integrated into the rest of the classroom processes. Finally, and importantly, the team recognizes the incredible role Ben’s parents play in helping him progress in the school environment. His family is involved, available and committed to his success. When his teacher was asked how she feels about Ben’s progress, she responded that she feels like “(she’s) in the right field.”
Walker’s teacher, assistants and therapists are also in the right field. Over this past school year Walker, a teenager with autism, has made incredible gains. In September, Walker would often use his body to get what he wanted and would run from the classroom to escape unpleasant activities. Now, seven months later, he is using a voice output device to make choices, he is engaged in the classroom activities, he independently takes care of his free choice time, and he’s appropriately making his opinions known and has a “strong work ethic” to get things done.
What comes through as most critical for Walker’s team’s success is the leadership of his teacher, Elaine. In half a year’s time she has shifted the team’s expectations of Walker. The team expects Walker to be responsive. The team expects Walker to engage in his day in productive ways. The team expects Walker to communicate. The team expects Walker to be independent. Walker hasn’t disappointed these expectations. Strong expectations are followed by strong supports for Walker. Walker’s classroom and clinical team members use structured teaching approaches and positive behavior supports throughout the day. Walker receives one-to-one structured instruction throughout the day. There is very little down time in the classroom. The free time Walker has is highly structured. He is always engaged in a productive, appropriate activity. These activities are purposeful and have a focus. Visual supports are available throughout the day. In modeling these expectations and supports the teacher has led the team in developing their own leadership.
This dispersed leadership is evident in the authority from which each of the team members speak. Each member has a clear responsibility for the classroom as a whole and each of the students, including Walker. No one member is responsible for one task or student. This shared responsibility ensures that everyone is committed to the classroom’s success.
While there are differences in the ways these teams approach Ben’s and Walker’s education, both use structured teaching methodology, visual supports and positive behavior supports as instructional pillars. These pillars are held by a strong foundation of: (a) teacher and team leadership, (b) team members with shared beliefs about what works, (c) each team member sharing their expertise, and (d) allowing the child to lead the team in making decisions. These success stories have validated the good work of each team member, each classroom, each team, and the school within which these boys learn. In 2001, The Shield Institute began to use structured teaching because of the approach’s capacity to: (a) support children at different ages, (b) incorporate other compatible approaches, used as aided language stimulation, (c) use positive behavior supports, and (d) focus on visually supporting students. The importance of these capacities has been born out in the success stories of Walker and Ben.
Susan Provenzano, EdD, is Executive Director of The Shield Institute. Mary McKillop, MA, CCC-SLP, and Suzanne Kucharczyk are with the Shield Institute Staff Development and Training Department. The Shield Institute is a JBFCS affiliate. For further information, please contact Mary McKillop, Director of Staff Development and Training at 718-269-2044 or firstname.lastname@example.org.