Area schools address ways to serve children with autism

This graphic shows the many disorders that fall under the autism spectrum. Educators are constantly working to find way to serve this unique, and oftentimes gifted, group of students.

By L. Parsons

Winslow and Holbrook schools both serve a population of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Currently, Winslow Unified School District has 10 students on the spectrum in their kindergarten through 12th grade program and Holbrook Unified School District has 16.

According to the Center for Disease Control, ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language, difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation, difficulty with executive functioning (which relates to reasoning and planning), narrow, intense interests, poor motor skills and sensory sensitivities.

In Arizona, one in 64 children is diagnosed with ASD, a number slightly higher than the national statistic of one in 68. Boys are affected by ASD four times more often than girls and all ethnicities are susceptible.

Challenges that face students with ASD are varying, as the spectrum disorder manifests itself differently in each individual diagnosed. Some of those challenges include the need to feel safe and comfortable in classrooms, dealing with sensory processing issues, and gaining a general education.

High needs aide Analisa Scofield from Jefferson Elementary School in Winslow said, “Winslow School District is very accommodating to the individual needs of each student. We make sure each student feels safe, and ready to learn, we have tools in the high needs classrooms to help students with sensory issues feel secure. We care.”               HUSD high needs aide Jami McPherson agreed, saying, “These kids are geniuses, they just process things differently. Some are higher on the spectrum, yes, but we cannot give them the label of incapable because they are far from that. We try to find their strengths and celebrate them, find their struggles and help them to succeed.”

Both aides went on to say that each student is different and require individual treatment in not only their behavioral challenges, but their learning styles as well. “Each one is unique,” McPherson said, “things that help one child may not work for another.”

WUSD Special Education Director Connie Gover said, “We teach kids on the spectrum depending on the child.” HUSD Superintendent Dr. Robbie Koerperich agreed saying, “Some of these kids will be college minded and some career minded. It is our job to evaluate the individual skill sets of each individual student.”

WUSD academic coach and educator Amanda Leonard explained that the students are not the only ones facing challenges in the school district. Parents, teachers, and administrators are constantly learning more about ASD and the expanse of the spectrum. Some students are highly verbal but suffer with sensory issues, while other students are non verbal but are able to solve complex math equations and every variable in between. Leonard said, “At the beginning of each school year teachers are trained in educating students, as well as helping parents. Further trainings are offered throughout the year as ASD is evolving in what constitutes a diagnosis and behavior manifestations.” She added, “I am not sure teachers are being given the training they need because of the ever changing spectrum but we are doing everything we can to stay on top of it.”

Training does not only include integrating students with ASD into mainstream classrooms. It also means teaching to each individual learning style. Leonard said, “Each student has special abilities and special skills, as well as special needs. Every student that comes into your classroom is going to exceed in certain areas and struggle in others, whether or not they have a diagnosis.” According to Leonard, this can be overwhelming to teachers and parents. “Some parents do not want their child labeled as autistic, or high needs, so they hold off on acquiring a diagnosis. This can be a roadblock for the school because without that diagnosis we can’t develop an individualized education program (IEP) and offer services to students who could benefit from them.”

Gover said, “Two components must be present in order for a child to be eligible for special education and related services. Either the child has a disability and/or the child is in need of specially designed instruction.” The next step, said Gover is, “We bring in a team of parents, general education and special education teachers, the principal and the special education director together to discuss the needs that the child has and develop an IEP. Each plan is unique to the student with goals, accommodations and modifications to ensure that the student can be successful with their curriculum.”

Leonard noted, “Our teachers are ready, willing, and able to steer families in the right direction to finding a doctor, or with providing tips to help parents follow through with the progress they make during the school day.” She explained that there is as a stigma related to the diagnosis of autism for some parents for various reasons. One of those reasons is the idea that their student may face bullying or exclusion from classroom activities. Leonard said, “Kids, for the most part, recognize that kids are different. Of course, the little ones will ask questions but by the time they get to say, sixth grade, they pretty much understand the behaviors of their classmates with ASD.”

Charleigh Betts the parent of Markus, a second grader with ASD, said, “Autism is blind to the eye. People can’t just look at my son and know he is on the spectrum like other disabilities that are more physically obvious. I feel like there needs to be something implemented where someone goes in and educates the kids on what to look for and how to act, and interact with these kids.” She added, however, that “bullying” has not been an issue for her son. “Markus doesn’t know that he is being teased. At school he is loved and protected. His teachers have a personal investment in him.”

Inclusion is another challenge parents have expressed. Scofield said, “Our teachers are amazing at making each student feel equal and included in every special class, activity, assembly. They go to recess and eat lunch with their peers. We feel like this is important.”

Betts admitted that inclusion is where she struggles. She explained that on one hand, it is beneficial for Markus to be in mainstream classes but on the other she sees the benefits of him attending high needs only classes. “He was in a high needs only class in kindergarten but we decided to put him in to a mainstream class. It was a little bit difficult, we had a lot of hiccups.”

The transition for students with ASD can be overwhelming, as they tend to thrive on unwavering structure according to the Arizona Department of Education. Betts said, “What they (WUSD) have done, is they decided that when he moved to mainstream, he needed a one-on-one aide. She has been with him for three years now and she is a blessing.”

McPherson is a one-on-one aide in Holbrook. “We see and nurture these kids on a daily basis. Sometimes they need space; they need to recognize that they are okay and process why they are upset about then they will move on. This is what I have learned working with these brilliant kids,” she said. Betts added, “Markus is held accountable for his behavior and his school work in the same way that other kids are. They are consistent with disciplinary issues and they should be.”

Bonnie Brennan Elementary School Principal Troy McReynolds said, “We practice consistency, compassion and inclusion at Bonnie Brennan. These kids are treated just like their peers.” On the subject of inclusion, Gover said, “They are either in a self-contained classroom, in the general education classroom, or they can go to certain classrooms for certain subjects. Some students have assistance from an aide and some are very independent. It is all designed around needs for that student.”

“The most important thing in the education of all of our kids, including the students with autism, is communication between the parents, the teachers and the student,” said McReynolds. Betts explained that from her perspective and in her experience, “I know that I can pick up the phone and call the school. I know that I can walk in to (Jefferson Elementary School Principal) Jodie Garner’s office. That being said, if there is a gap between what is being taught at school and what is being taught at home, I feel like it is my responsibility to fill it. It is my job to advocate for my son. I make calls and I ask for tips. I call more IEP meetings than are required. I make sure that I sit with him and make sure his homework is done.”

Betts explained that Markus is able to attend all of his required therapies at school. He is served by an occupational, speech and physical therapist, as well as a psychologist. Betts said, “He has had the same physical therapist and the same psychologist since preschool. If I have any questions or concerns I can go to any of them and I feel like I will be heard.”

Leonard said, “It is so important that parents get involved and communicate. We as a district are learning all that we can about the spectrum and how to interact with every one of our students. I truly believe that our teachers really want to help kids and that they are doing their very best.”

Gover echoed the importance of communication saying, “Some tips for parents are one, to realize they are valuable members of the IEP team and it is important for them to share their concerns with the team. Two, request an IEP meeting any time you feel your child’s needs are not being met. Three, communicate with the people that work with your child and four, be proactive not reactive.”

Adding to the conversation about parental involvement, HUSD Special Education Director Jeff Meeks said, “To help us serve students our parents need to be consistent with routine between home and school. Special education students thrive in highly structured environments. Sometimes we see in school the student is highly structured and at home especially over breaks, not as much. It can be difficult to transition back.” He added that in regards to communication, HUSD offers communication logs, which is a physical notebook that serves to bridge the communication between home and school especially for those students who are not able to relay information to their parents or caregivers.

Dr. Koerperich said, “There is such a wide spectrum and we in Holbrook have a holistic view of autism. We don’t have it figured out, it is always changing and our system has to change as our students do. Overall, there is a sense of happiness and pride from parents, teachers and students.

Betts said, “Markus is making strides in his education and in his therapies. His vocal abilities are improving, his social skills are improving.” She credits Winslow schools with his progress. “I could not be happier with the school district, I have the best support system.”

Bonnie Brennan Elementary School in Winslow offers a high needs only preschool and Hulet Elementary School in Holbrook serves high needs students in their preschool as well. Both districts welcome inquiry and input from parents who believe their child may be on the spectrum. As Dr. Koerperich said, “Education is a process, not an event and we need to constantly be hand in hand with the parents. When students graduate from Holbrook High School we want them to have the skill set to go forward in life and take on anything they put their minds to.”