Intensive support for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder begins young
PARKER – Within the walls of Prairie Crossing Elementary School, there are two very different intensive center-based personalized learning programs, both of which are dedicated to serving and providing interventions for students on the autism spectrum as early as possible.
As discussed during the month-long series on Personalized Learning, both programs that happen to be housed at Prairie Crossing are in the intensive layer of the Multi-Level System of Supports model used by the Douglas County School District and other school districts across the state.
“We always work to meet the needs of our students who have autism spectrum disorders within the universal and targeted framework at our neighborhood schools first,” explained Cora Nash, who serves on DCSD’s Autism Team. “Once those interventions have been exhausted by the school team and special education department, everyone, including the student, parents, school team and a representative from the Autism Team, comes together to help make the decision about the need for a higher level of programming.”
Prairie Crossing’s preschool and Autism Behavior Classroom are two options that they might consider, depending on the student’s age, needs and abilities.
Supporting students with autism spectrum disorders at the youngest age
The preschool at Prairie Crossing is one of six within the District specifically designed to serve students on the autism spectrum.
“All of DCSD’s preschool programs integrate special education students with general education students, but most are served through moderate needs programming,” explained Mo Zelle, an early childhood special education teacher. “We have six sites that are high needs classrooms and serve children who have an autism spectrum disorders diagnoses or suspected to be on the spectrum and have significant needs.”
The programs are able to serve a total of 16 students, amongst a population of typically developing preschool students. Zelle believes this integration is something that benefits both general education students and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
“I was teaching in Michigan prior to this and it was very much a segregated program where the classrooms were just children on the autism spectrum, without any typical peers in there,” Zelle said. “I feel like it is hugely beneficial to our students to have the community peers with them.”
Integration, however, takes work because the students with ASD that Zelle works with are considered “highly dysregulated,” which means that that they may regularly throw tantrums or have an inability to process information.
“We do get the children with typical behaviors associated with ASD. They are just not able to pull their behavior into focus. They may talk a lot, they may rock, they might have to move all the time,” Zelle explained.
Each student is unique, so Zelle and the rest of the team work to find the right strategies that will work for them.
“Preschool is all about learning through play. Within the play we are teaching all of these different aspects,” Zelle said. “When you look at one of these students, you are really looking at what is impeding their education. How much is the autism getting in the way of their actual learning? That is how we approach each child.”
Zelle and the team are constantly implementing different interventions because the students’ behaviors can change greatly, even over the course of the day.
“We are constantly working to help them manage themselves and manage their learning on a daily or hourly basis, because they do change so frequently,” Zelle said. “We might implement a strategy and it might work great for three days and then we have to think of something different because it no longer works.”
“We soak up the challenge we have with each child. It’s great to see something that works and it’s a great challenge to figure out what might work next,” Zelle added.
The Autism Behavior Classroom
Just down the hall at Prairie Crossing is another program, which aims to serve a different segment of the student population that experiences ASD. The Autism Behavior Classroom (ABC) is for kindergarten through sixth grade students.
“It is unique because we are looking at the students who are higher functioning on the spectrum that really didn’t get their needs met within the context of some of the other programs,” explained Nash. “They are students who are typically functioning within the context of academic grade level work, but they are missing some of those other skills that allow them to access that general education environment.”
“Most of the students that have been in the ABC program have behavior challenges that are their primary obstacle to being able to access typical home or school environments,” added ABC teacher Amanda Panepinto. “We provide an environment that makes students on the spectrum feel comfortable and safe.”
By providing a separate classroom environment for a dozen students with ASD, they can really cater to their specific needs.
“The physical environment is important for children on the spectrum,” Panepinto explained. “They have space to be on their own, space to work together in small groups. They have space to get their sensory needs met. We tailor the program to each child for what they need, so we essentially have 12 different programs in one classroom, going at a time.”
Commonly, the students with ASD have trouble coping with change.
“We try to keep their day pretty structured, so they can predict what can happen next and prepare them if there are any changes that are going to happen,” Panepinto said. “Every day at 8:30 a.m. they know they are going to do math, whereas in a normal classroom schedules change often and students on the spectrum are not ready for that. That might inhibit their learning.”
For some students it is the social interaction in a regular classroom that makes it hard for them to learn in a regular classroom. Regardless of the challenge, the ABC teachers work to build coping mechanisms, so that the students can eventually integrate back into the general education classrooms within the school.
“We want this population of students, as with every population of students, to really thrive in their communities, their school communities and that is ultimately our goal,” Nash said. “We are really looking to getting students back to the less restrictive environment. [ABC] is meant to be a shorter-term option. Once we are able to stabilize behavioral challenges and really target some of those lagging skills that students with autism experience, we give them that boost in skill development and get them back to the regular classroom.”
Panepinto says the students also work to develop socially expected behaviors in the school.
“We practice those behaviors daily, first in a controlled setting then in the regular education setting. We also teach and practice coping skills and strategies that the students can take with them into other settings of the school and community,” Panepinto said.
Early intervention is the key
While these two programs differ greatly, both are focused on the same outcome, early intervention.
“There is so much importance on early teaching of these young students in the spectrum,” said Zelle. “It is so important that they get their intervention at the earliest age possible, because it is so beneficial for them.”
“We are trying to get more of that earlier intervention so that when they go to middle school and high school that they have those skills that will help them to access our other programs within our continuum of support in Douglas County,” Nash added.
While there are no programs that specialize in serving the growing autism population in middle school and high school, the District’s special education programs do work closely with these students to ensure their needs are met, often employing the best practices developed in these early childhood and elementary programs.
“We now have a set of research-based interventions that we know are successful with this population of students, but it is also successful with other students. We are now using those interventions in other environments,” Nash said.