According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 1,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism. Autism Speaks, a non-profit autism advocacy and awareness campaign says one in every 110 children, and 1 in 70 boys, are affected by autism. According to Autism Speaks, autism is now “more common that childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.”
The numbers for autism diagnosis have grown dramatically since the 1980s, and while the causes of autism are still not known, education institutions across the nation are asked to tackle the challenge of teaching autistic children.
Autism levels and symptoms can vary widely but it is basically a developmental condition in which a child has difficulty in communicating, forming relationships and language development. Some of the common characteristics of autism are behavior social skill deficits, limited interest and repetitive behavior.
In the Turlock Unified School District, the Special Day Classes for autistic children — located primarily at Wakefield Elementary and also at Crowell Elementary — have grown from just three classes in 2004 to eight classes this year. The TUSD autism program is responsible for teaching children diagnosed with autism from not only Turlock but from surrounding areas as well.
There are now 64 autistic pre-K through fifth grade students in TUSD Special Day Classes, with hundreds more who over the years have advanced to less restrictive settings, including mainstream classrooms. Wakefield and Crowell house SDCs on campus and when an autistic student is ready to move onto a mainstream class they often return to their home campus or district.
The ultimate goal for TUSD is to have autistic children develop the skills they need to move on to traditional classrooms with continued support. Director of Special Education Denise Banghart-Bragg said about 25 percent of autistic students are moved from the SDCs to mainstream classes each year.
“The key for the autistic student is early intervention and an increased emphasis on team work between teachers, parents, administrators and students at Wakefield and Crowell,” said Banghart-Bragg. “It is very rare that we have students remain in the autism SDC program past the fifth grade.”
Currently, there are 78 students who have an autism diagnosis who have moved into mainstream classes throughout the district.
Wakefield and Crowell have three pre-K SDCs, two kindergartens, two first/ second grade classes and one third-sixth grade class.
Since autism affects each child differently, and diagnosis ranges in ages between 2- 6 years old, students are introduced to classrooms which feature intense one-on-one learning with teachers and para-professionals who are specifically trained in autistic education. The learning must also be tailored to a particular student’s needs and skills. One of the most important steps for teachers is to introduce “correction procedures” for students.
Angelica Jauregui, an autistic teacher at Wakefield, said that correction procedures are necessary to produce an errorless learning experience. She explained that unlike typically-developing children, who can learn after making repetitive mistakes and observation, autistic children must be immediately corrected so that no errors in their learning occurs or the mistake can potentially be repeated without being solved. The correction procedure is to interrupt the error and promptly correct the response, give the instruction again and immediately prompt the student for correction, then distract the student. The distraction technique is often used to focus the student back to the task at hand. When the student is quickly refocused the instruction is given again by the teacher and the student is expected to respond.
“The instruction is very engaged and fast paced, we really give them intense early intervention” said Jauregui.
Autistic students will generally spend four hours of a six-hour school day engaged in one-on-one learning, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Small group instruction is limited because routine and one-on-one interaction is paramount for autistic students.
Another key component of autistic instruction is “generalization checks.” Students can sometimes have difficulty breaking a routine they are used to. To ensure students are learning to cope with environmental and personnel interaction changes teachers will check to see if the student can generalize their learning in different settings or interactions. They will change one-on-one teachers, methods of teaching and even the physical environment where the student is instructed.
Part of autism is learning to handle social interaction. In a normal-functioning student social interaction is typically learned through observation and encouragement.
“With the autistic student every single skill and social interaction must be taught, like in baseball where if you hit a home-run you run around the bases and then you give high-fives to your teammates. Here we will walk them through and show the student how to do that, because students with autism do not learn through observation alone,” explained Banghart-Bragg.
In many instances autistic students begin their interaction with mainstream students and transition to the classroom in short increments of time, increasing as needed until the ultimate goal of full integration is reached.
Wakefield Principal Aaron Mello has worked with mainstream teachers, staff and students on campus to ensure autistic students are given the skills to learn appropriate social interactions.
“Once they are outside the classroom it’s important they learn how to interact with their peers to be successful, so we want to make them part of the campus. Through teacher and administrative support we’ve been able to integrate the students into the everyday school activities here. They have recess with other students and go to the cafeteria and assemblies, and older students visit the SDCs and interact with the students,” said Mello.
As students move on past SDCs and are placed in mainstream classrooms, further support is given by TUSD behavior specialist staff and training for mainstream teachers.
In any instance data collection is a large aspect of autistic learning. Teachers, para-professionals, speech therapists, adaptive physical education teachers and occupational therapists are constantly compiling data to track the student’s improvements and to pinpoint specific areas of need. The data and education plan is shared with parents who are consistently updated on their son or daughter’s progress.
While autism is a growing diagnosis with many unanswered questions, school district personnel can determine how that student learns and how they can learn to deal with their symptoms.
“Autism isn’t something that goes away. I have a birth mark — it’s not going away — but this is all about what skills the student is given to meet their potential and it’s all individualized based on that student’s needs,” said Banghart-Bragg.
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