Cathy began searching for a kindergarten for her son, who has an autism spectrum disorder, in 2007. Even though her son was only 3 at the time, other parents had warned her that it could take years for her to find the right kindergarten.
Now, her son is 4. As graduation in June looms large in her mind, her search for the right school continues.
“It’s so stressful,” said Cathy, who asked that her last name not be used. “I’m just hoping we’re going to find the right school.”
“There’s anxiety anytime a family goes through one of these transitions,” said Erica Levy, a social worker with the New York League for Early Learning (NYL) Gramercy School in Manhattan. NYL is a member of the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities Network. “Some parents are realizing that their children are not ready to be mainstreamed. While they’re making progress in preschool, they may not be progressing like most 4- or 5-year-olds.”
Couple those emotions with the fact that many private schools require a commitment in November or December, a time when many parents are working with teachers, therapists and other professionals to assess if their child will even be ready for kindergarten by the following September. Meanwhile, public schools in New York City don’t provide placement until June.
According to the National Research Council’s “Educating Children with Autism,” “The characteristics of the most appropriate intervention for a given child must be tied to that child’s and family’s needs. Effective services will and should vary considerably across individual children, depending on a child’s age, cognitive and language levels, behavioral needs and family priorities.”
Mia Simon, the parent of 5-year-old Zach, has an intimate knowledge of the challenges of finding an appropriate school. “We fought very hard for one specific school because we knew it was going to make a difference in his life.”
She urges parents to follow Cathy’s lead and begin looking for schools a year before graduation from preschool. Talking to parents and visiting schools are crucial first steps.
“Look at a number of different schools to get a sense of the options available to your child,” Mia said.She also suggests that parents pay attention to Department of Education proposed rules and changes for children with special needs, and their related services, in this tough economic time. For example, the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief released a report late last year recommending several potential cuts to the special education budget. Among the recommendations were a move to reduce or remove payment for transportation of special education students, and eliminating class size mandates, allowing each school to establish class size based on students’ needs.
Michelle, who requested her last name not be used, began compiling a list of schools about a year before graduation and visited 17 different schools throughout New York City and New Jersey. The list was based on suggestions from therapists, teachers and other members of her son Jonathan’s team. She classified the schools based on their focus, e.g.: autism, speech and language delay; type, e.g.: private, state approved or public; and curriculum, such as ABA. Michelle found it helpful to tour differently structured classrooms.
“You have to be realistic about your child and what he can accomplish,” she said. “You want him in a place where he can thrive and be successful.”
Dr. Charles Cartwright, Director of the YAI Autism Center, suggests that families pay particular attention to a school’s environment. Get a sense of how the environment and educational strategies are implemented to meet the goals of the students and families. How is the school addressing the objectives specified in a child’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP? Look in the classrooms. “If you see children walking off into the corner or engaged in repetitive behaviors without staff redirecting the behaviors, that’s not a good sign,” Dr. Cartwright said.Prepare questions for teachers and listen carefully to how they respond. – “You can quickly gauge a sense of comfort and confidence in a teacher’s ability to communicate what he or she is doing in classrooms and how individualized the educational plan is for each child,” Dr. Cartwright said. “Ask teachers about the different ranges of disabilities in their students and how they tackle different behaviors.”
Be sure to ask school officials about the staff turnover rate. – “There’s nothing that drives parents more crazy than starting the year with one teacher, but going through two or three more teachers by end of year,” Dr. Cartwright said. “The teacher never had an opportunity to get to know their child or learn how their child processed information, and what worked well with their child.”
Mia advises parents to inquire about staffing levels to ensure that there’s sufficient coverage among speech and other therapists. “At many schools, if a speech pathologist is on a leave of absence, there’s a big gap in services.”
Look for a balance of support and nurturing with room to grow. Will the school challenge your child? Is there enough emphasis on cognitive, social and language development? – “If your child is not a talker yet, you need a curriculum that focuses on language all day long,” said Carol Stein-Schulman, Assistant Director of the New York League for Early Learning. “Language has to be taught and some children need hundreds of opportunities to use words. It can’t be done in a half hour.”
Are there strategies in place to increase a child’s repertoire of interests, as well as interventions available that can reduce repetitive behaviors? – “Teachers should also recognize that there are a number of co-existing conditions or behaviors that go along with autism, such an anxiety, poor impulse control or difficulty sustaining attention,” Dr. Cartwright said. “For example, a child who experiences anxiety needs more structure. The teacher should have a knowledge base about what strategies can be used to reduce these levels of anxiety.”
Some parents have realized that many schools for children with special needs focus too much on the “special” and not enough on the “education.”
Make sure that the school’s educational curriculum suits your child. – Whether the school uses an intensive ABA model, verbal behavioral approaches or other evidence-based strategies, the curriculum should benefit your child’s academic growth, as well as his or her communication, social and psychological development. Ask the school about the data they collect and how it’s used to track a child’s progress.Dr. Cartwright finds that many children on the spectrum respond to a developmental matching process, which identifies a child’s strengths and relative weaknesses. This enables teachers to match the most appropriate educational model — from a highly structured intensive behavior approach to a relational approach, such as DIR®/Floortime™ Model – with the student. This technique has been incorporated in the New York League Model ©, which has been developed over 15 years in NYL’s seven preschools.
According to many families, the absence of social skills training marks a major gap in many schools.“Many of the children on the spectrum aren’t given the opportunity to socialize with their non-disabled peers or learn social skills,” Mia said. “Many times what you see is that many programs are in isolated areas of a school. That’s something to think about. Do you want your child in an isolated setting or in a place for integration into mainstream events.”
Ask about “specials,” adaptive physical education, art and music. These classes often provide opportunities for inclusion. Having role models is important for the development of social skills in children on the spectrum, Dr. Cartwright adds. “And their parents want their children to have the same academic and social experience that any other child would have in a school-age program.”
After touring schools and visiting with teachers, make sure you speak with parents of students who are a year or two older than your child. “Network, make those phone calls and get their advice,” Michelle says.
Carol Stein-Schulman, Assistant Director of the Education and Training Department for YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities, a member of the YAI/NIPD Network, understands that changing school environments creates anxiety. “You’re facing something new and unknown,” she says. “Knowledge can ease your anxiety.”
According to Carol, these are some questions parents should ask when looking for a school-age program for their child on the autism spectrum.
- Does your program have an individualized approach?
What methodology or combination of approaches do you use?
- Who are the people on my child’s team? Are they Board Certified? (Remember, parents are part of the team).
- Do you provide staff training? Parent training?
- Ask to see data and program books
- How do you provide for generalization of skills?
- Do the children learn and have fun?
To Help You Make a Decision:
- Take into account all your hard work and data.
- Listen to your instincts as a parent and an advocate.
Consider the needs of other family members. The YAI/NIPD Network is in the process of developing a school-age program in Manhattan for children on the autism spectrum. For more information, contact Randi Kent Mattson, Executive Assistant, at 212-273-6145.
Bernadette Flynn, EdD, is Director of the New York League for Early learning, a member of the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities Network. For more information on evaluations and services for children with autism spectrum disorders, please contact YAI LINK at 1-866-2-YAI-LINK; TDD: 212-290-2787, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.yai.org.