Inclusion for Students on the Autism Spectrum

A Vermont district commits to serving the unique needs of children in their home communities by Joanne Godek

William was diagnosed with autism at age 3. He liked to play alone and when interrupted would throw a tantrum. He did not use language to communicate but could recite lines and songs from favorite TV shows. He repeated these so often he couldn’t attend to the learning environment around him.

Once thought to be rare, autism spectrum disorders now are believed to affect an estimated one in every 150 American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Debates about whether this is a true increase in the number of children affected, or whether changes in diagnostic criteria and the heightened recognition of the disorder account for the increased frequency in diagnosis, are subsiding. The bottom line is that the number of students with diagnosed autism spectrum disorders is on the rise.

Diagnosed as early as 18 months of age and defined by considerable impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests, autism spectrum disorders are medical conditions that are considered a lifetime disability. They include autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder—not otherwise specified, Rett Syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Many children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders need individualized education plans to meet their unique social and communication needs in the federally mandated least-restrictive environment. How does a school system respond quickly and responsibly to the increased numbers of students with autism spectrum disorders? How can you develop quality programs and prepare staff to meet this growing need?

Getting Started
Upon entering our Essential Early Education program, William was assigned a highly trained interventionist. He participated in ABA discrete trial teaching for 25 hours per week. William had help interacting and playing with peers in the preschool and spent every afternoon learning to pay attention to his work and his teachers through direct teaching. His ability to pay attention, learn and communicate exploded during his two years in preschool.

The National Research Council recommends early entry into an intervention program — as soon as a child is suspected to have an autism spectrum disorder. The council recommends these programs provide systematically planned and developmentally appropriate educational activities focused on identified objectives.

The diverse needs of these students require a range of approaches, including applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, treatments, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and instruction to improve social interaction, communication and development of academic and functional skills. Some students need supports beyond the school program, so wraparound services with mental health agencies and families may be necessary.

Vermont is committed to inclusion of students with disabilities and strives to provide the services and supports necessary to educate children in their home communities. In 2000, eight students in our school district were identified on the autism spectrum. By 2005, our numbers grew to 16; currently we enroll 22 students identified with autism spectrum disorders.

With the increasing number of students and strong parent advocacy for appropriate services came a growing need for more highly trained staff within the school district. To provide a systemic response to this mounting need, the school district formed a task force of stakeholders to define our philosophy and determine next steps. This group of administrators, educators, community service providers and parents met over several months to develop our philosophy statement.

Our philosophy for educating these students reflects our commitment “to providing an educational environment that welcomes, accepts and understands the unique qualities of children with autism spectrum disorders.”

Because these students present a wide variety of characteristics, strengths and challenges, no single program addresses every student’s needs. There are, however, fundamental components to all programs for children with autism. We are committed to providing “a consistent coordinated model of service that ensures an equitable and efficient distribution of resources and includes these fundamental components.”

Using this philosophy as the framework, the group designed a model of service that could meet the needs of our current students and continue to build the capacity of the staff throughout the district. The model includes a clinical team consisting of a special education administrator, a school psychologist, an occupational therapist and a panel of professionals with expertise in autism, including a board-certified applied behavior analyst, a special educator and a speech language pathologist. This team reviews all cases, designs professional development, provides consultation and screens for diagnosis.

Across the district, special educators with endorsements in intensive special needs manage cases and provide direct oversight of student programs. Individual students receive direct instruction from trained interventionists supervised by special educators. We provide a high level of training for these direct-service providers.

Sustaining the Model
As William entered elementary school, he continued to develop as a learner. He participated in social activities in the classroom, and with support and coaching, learned communication and play skills and developed friendships. He also received direct instruction in academics with a highly trained interventionist in a distraction-free environment. A team of professionals met weekly to review data and adjust programming accordingly. Parents joined the meetings once a month to get progress updates and provide input.

Intensive early intervention, professional development, support, supervision and strategic staffing are the vital ingredients for sustaining our model. When students enter our Essential Early Education Program, they receive intensive interventions. We work closely with families to create a collaborative relationship and develop a shared understanding of our program.

This early intervention greatly improves our ability to meet the child’s needs in the district on a long-term basis. The staff and family develop a keen awareness of student needs and, as a result, the student’s skills steadily improve.

Recognizing the importance of improving the knowledge and skills of all district staff members who work with students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, the district participates in local, regional, state and national conferences. We offer regular training for paraeducators and professional staff.

In addition, our clinical team continues to develop its expertise. Members are working toward certification as board-certified behavior analysts. They continually identify district training needs in specific areas and for specific staff.

Strategic staffing and staffing rotation are also methods of sustaining our model. Across the district, members of our clinical team help special educators with tasks such as completing functional behavioral assessments, setting up discrete trial programs and learning skills of social cognition. Our staff members also participate in coursework, conferences and workshops. As their skills develop, they are assigned according to the specific needs of students.

The autism interventionists who work directly with students are rotated regularly. Students who work intensively with adults may become dependent on those adults. By rotating staff regularly, students are less dependent on one interventionist, there is less staff burnout, and the staff members are able to share their knowledge across the district.

In the three years since implementing the autism model of service, the district has decreased the number of contracted services for individual student programs from the highest number in our region to just three contracts. We have trained 12 autism interventionists and retained six of these positions for more than three years. We also have provided 6-10 workshops annually for professional and paraprofessional staff.

The capacity of our special educators to understand the needs of students and implement evidence-based programming has increased in each of our schools.

Challenges to Inclusion
On to middle school, a difficult transition for many typically developing children and their families. William began to visit with his current interventionist the January before he entered middle school. This staff member acclimated him to the building while he was still in elementary school and then continued to work with him into his middle school year. He learned to navigate the building and began to recognize and interact with key faculty and support staff. Members of the clinical team attended transition meetings. His interventionist supported him during the summer and into the middle school. Parents provided input at monthly meetings and discussed their fears as William entered a larger, more independent environment.

Implementing an inclusionary model of service for students with autism spectrum disorders is challenging. Sometimes working collaboratively on behalf of children’s needs can be difficult; conflicts may arise when disagreements occur around methodology and programming. District educators should work cooperatively with parents to understand their interests and needs, while at the same time sharing the district model and stressing its benefits.

Listening to parents to get a true understanding of their concerns and interests for their children is most important. You can use that input to design effective programs to increase a child’s independence in a variety of settings. Helping parents navigate the human service systems to obtain support for their children outside of their school program is also helpful.

Another challenge is ensuring that all faculty members understand what meaningful inclusion entails and accept that students with autism and other developmental disabilities belong in the school community.

One effective strategy is to work with classroom teachers to develop lessons with curricula overlapping so students with autism spectrum disorders are able to participate in classroom activities, but their goals are centered on their individual needs. Setting up social circles of support for students with autism spectrum disorders provides peer advocates across school settings. This involves training students and developing their understanding and tolerance for differences. The guidance department is helpful in this area.

Districts should consider providing universally designed classrooms where the needs of students with developmental disabilities are considered. When teachers plan lessons, assessments, projects and activities with all students in mind and have assistive technology available, they provide many opportunities for students with different learning styles and needs. The classroom or instruction does not have to be retrofitted for particular students.

Finally, autism is a medical condition, and many students with autism require more services and supports than a free appropriate public education can provide, making collaboration with mental health agencies and medical professionals necessary. One successful strategy is to bring teams of educators together with representatives of outside agencies to discuss any unmet student needs and to develop interagency plans for students. Having key players at the table talk openly with parents about what is available and how we can work together is a powerful approach.

Hopes for the Future
William walks across the stage to receive his high school diploma. He sits down with his friends who have supported him since elementary school. Because he has an adult service team that will continue to assist him as he becomes independent in the community, his parents are confident his needs will be met well into adulthood.

What will the future bring for our system of delivery? I see ongoing efforts regionally and statewide to improve the services for students with autism spectrum disorders. I envision a statewide system that coordinates interagency efforts to provide a less-complicated, better-supported system of care for the autistic, from diagnosis through adulthood.

I hope for widespread recognition of autism as a medical condition — one that calls for increased collaboration among medical professionals, educators and mental health agencies. I foresee a sharing of resources among regional and local human services and education agencies to provide the clinical expertise necessary to build and sustain quality programs.

With coordinated efforts, quality programs and well-trained staff will be available in all schools.

Joanne Godek is the director of educational support systems for the South Burlington School District in South Burlington, Vt. E-mail: jgodek@sbschools.net