Ten years ago Dorothy Siegel and Shirley Cohen, working closely with administrators of a Brooklyn school district, initiated a pilot for the ASD Nest program. Now, ten years later, that pilot has evolved into a robust model based in 20 public elementary schools in New York City, with continuing replication to additional schools each year. With the recent publication of two books detailing how to establish and support this program model, the ASD Nest is ready to move beyond New York City.
Why Was the ASD Nest Program Created?
In recent years, the population of children being identified as having an autism spectrum disorder has been increasing dramatically, and a large proportion of that increase is associated with the diagnosis of children at the higher end of the spectrum. Those children often struggled in mainstream classes without the supports they needed to function well, while others found themselves in programs designed for students with severe disabilities that did little to advance their learning. There was no model for serving these children appropriately and thus no “home” for them within the NYC public school system.
What Is the ASD Nest Model: A Brief Overview
The ASD Nest program provides a much-needed home for these higher functioning children with ASD. The Nest is a full-time inclusion program that starts at kindergarten in neighborhood schools and expands up one grade each year. The goal of the program is to help these children function comfortably and successfully in mainstream settings in their school and community. The core features of the model are:
Co-taught classes with two teachers, one certified in special education and the other in general education, or both with dual certification
Reduced class size and a low ratio of students with ASD to typically developing students: 12 students in kindergarten classes, 4 of them with ASD; 16 students per class in grades 1-3, 4 of them with ASD; and 20 students per class in grades 4-5, up to 5 with ASD
A multidisciplinary team that meets weekly to discuss students, with each team made up of classroom teachers, a speech/language therapist, occupational therapist, social worker, and school administrator
Pre-service training on ASD and intervention through graduate coursework at Hunter College the summer before a newly hired teacher or therapist starts work in the program
On-going professional development through workshops and on-site support
Social therapeutic intervention based on social cognitive theory, relationship development approaches, and the developmental social pragmatics model, along with the school’s grade level academic curriculum.
A positive behavior approach in the classroom and across all other settings
A home-school collaborative connection, with two-way communication notebooks, workshops, meetings, and a parent newsletter
What Does It Take to Implement This Model Effectively?
Successful implementation relies on full utilization of all of the model’s core elements right from the start. Our experiences in replicating the program also taught us that the following conditions are also necessary.
At the district level – The district understands the model, is committed to its successful implementation, and provides adequate funding on a timely basis to support it; a student evaluation process is put into place to identify children appropriate for the program; and the district establishes a collaborative relationship with university-based autism experts to provide consistent training, professional development, and on-site support for teachers and therapists.
At the school level – The schools selected for participation should be caring places, with a welcoming attitude toward children with disabilities, a positive behavior support approach, and a collaborative culture. The principal should be a strong instructional leader who is knowledgeable about inclusion; and the teachers should be flexible, willing to co-teach with a partner, and willing to learn the ASD Nest approach.
How Do We Know It Is Effective?
There are now over 500 students in the ASD Nest program in New York City elementary schools. The overwhelming majority of children admitted to the program stay in the program, keep up academically with their typically developing peers, and are promoted from grade to grade. Teachers and parents tell us that the children become much more socially aware and that their self-regulation improves substantially.
On the third grade New York State tests in English language arts and math, the students with ASD meet or slightly exceed the scores of the general education students in their schools: ASD students in the Nest program (n=70 across 10 schools) ELA 666, Math 697; general education students at the same schools (n=805) ELA 665, Math 689.
Two studies that examine other aspects of our students’ functioning are currently underway. Both studies are being directed by researchers not connected with the program.
A Million Dollar Moment
Last June, Dorothy attended the fifth grade graduation ceremony at PS 186, the Castlewood School, in Queens, a veritable United Nations of children hailing from forty or more countries. Fifty-three children graduated this year, eight of them having benefited from six years in the ASD Nest program. This was a perfectly executed, typical American-style graduation – changing of the color guard, singing of God Bless America and the school song, a video montage of every child, a few children and adults giving polished speeches, a procession of children to the stage to receive their diplomas, and special awards for music, art, citizenship, etc.
Every one of the eight ASD Nest children in that graduating class appeared to be just another fifth grader participating in a long ceremony in a hot auditorium. What are the odds that all these eight children would have been participating so “normally” in that grade school graduation ceremony had they not been in the ASD Nest program with its tailored interventions and supports along with wonderful ASD Nest teachers and therapists? Dorothy knew the answer: slim to none. To the parents of those eight ASD Nest children, it was a Million Dollar Moment.
For further information about the ASD Nest program please go to our website at http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/asdnest/, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shirley Cohen, PhD, is Professor Emerita at Hunter College, City University of New York. Dorothy Siegel, MPH, is Project Director and Lauren Hough, MSEd, is a Coach/Consultant at the ASD Nest Support Project at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University.
Cohen, S. & Hough, L. (Eds.). (2013). The ASD Nest Program. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Bleiweiss, J., Hough, L, & Cohen, S. (2013). Everyday Classroom Strategies and Practices for Supporting Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.