Students with Autism Have Classroom Support... But Is It Enough?

Apr 4, 2018

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and WMRA is presenting a six-part series about this increasingly prevalent developmental disorder. Today, we look at the educational system’s approach to students with autism. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is just that – a spectrum disorder. Each individual on – or off – that spectrum is unique, and so when it comes to educating students with autism, there’s no one-size-fits-all option.

BETH DAVIS: There’s a little rocking chair that does a little rock, and a big rocking chair that does a really big rock…

Beth Davis is an autism teacher at John Wayland Elementary School in Bridgewater.

DAVIS: …squishy things and things that spin.

Her autism classroom serves “low-incident, high needs” students in kindergarten through grade five from a number of schools in the region.

DAVIS: … a swing that’s kind of soothing….

The Rockingham County school was about to clear out for spring break, but as Davis gave me a tour of her classroom, one of her students came by for a final lesson of the day.

DAVIS: Come in, Ben. No, you’re okay. Come on in.

BEN: Whatcha been doing?

DAVIS: Well, we’re just talking to this man.

Ben and a special education assistant headed to a computer in the corner of the classroom for some math review.

DAVIS: They all have a classroom they participate with, recess and music, and art and all of those special things. They all eat lunch with their peers, and then they come back in here for different parts of the day, to do some different work, to build independence, or to work on reading or math.

In Virginia, about 20,000 students are eligible for special education services for autism, according to the state’s most recent report. While each of them is unique, the disorder causes deficits in three main areas: communication, social interaction, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors, such as body movements or insistence on following routines.

Trends in education for students with autism have moved towards including students in mainstream classes and school community activities, teaching self determination and self advocacy skills, and basing strategies in applied behavior analysis, or ABA. Doing all that can be challenging.

KITTI ROBINSON: That’s why we have such a strong and large support team in place for our teachers so that they’re not having to figure it out on their own.

Kitti Robinson is a board certified behavior analyst (or BCBA) with Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

ROBINSON: We have school psychologists, social workers, BCBAs, instructional coaches, and all of us are there to help support them.

These are all part of a statewide approach that tries to support students and meet their educational needs to prepare them to be productive, more independent community members after finishing school.

The Virginia Department of Education works with the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence and regional Training and Technical Assistance Centers to provide professional development and support for teachers. A goal is implementing evidence-based practices identified by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Those evidence-based practices don’t help only students with autism or other disabilities. Any student, with or without disabilities, might benefit from visual supports showing schedules or classroom expectations, or from having additional paraprofessionals or teachers in the classroom.

Dan Irwin is Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Assistive Technology specialist with the Virginia Department of Education.

IRWIN: When you start building in some of those specialized supports and those kind of what we would call kind of tier one supports for supporting all students, we do see increases in testing scores.

For students with autism, inclusion in general education classrooms can be beneficial in particular ways.

IRWIN: Students with autism can benefit greatly from being around typically developing peers, in the development of communication and social opportunities.

One challenge of providing intensive classroom supports to students is also ensuring that those support systems don’t create unhealthy dependencies, such as students needing to be prompted to complete tasks that they have already mastered.

Again, Harrisonburg City’s Kitti Robinson:

ROBINSON: My goal, what I’m thinking every time I encounter a student who needs more specific intervention, is, What level of independence are they going to have as a result of this? Cause I’m watching the kids grow up before my eyes and some of them are going to be graduating high school, and how are they able to advocate for themselves outside of school? Because you really have to have a strong sense of self determination and self advocacy to say, “I have autism, and I need you to do these things for me to be successful.”

For Ben, at the computer in his Rockingham County elementary school classroom, the eventual end of his supportive school career might not be something he’s thought about yet. He has math problems to do, after all.

[Computer keyboard sounds]

BEN: Three. Six.

ASSISTANT RACHEL DAVIS: Yes sir, good job.