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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Public school and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Does it meet the Needs?

Part one of four:
I am the mother of two boys, both with the diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  As an activist for my children’s education, I have dealt frequently with the public school’s special needs resources.  I personally believe that the public school system does not have the necessary accommodations and resources to meet the needs of an ASD student. 
Autism/ASD is a mental condition causing social quirks, sensory disorders, difficulty with language development, and an uneven distribution of strengths.  Children with ASD are not all alike.  One cannot tell if a child is autistic from simply looking at him/her.  Those with ASD are vastly and uniquely different.   While one child may be able to communicate fairly well, having a vast vocabulary and only struggling occasionally with a sound or two, another child on the Autism Spectrum may be completely non-verbal. 
Both of my children have the ASD characteristics I mentioned above, yet my oldest child’s characteristics are much more profound than those of my youngest.  This is where the spectrum comes in; William, my oldest, is higher on the spectrum than Richard, my youngest.  
William, my very serious, brown haired, blue eyed, nine year old, truly struggles with connecting his brain to his mouth.  He knows so much, yet he cannot voice it.  The first time he and I were able to have even a basic conversation, exchanging thoughts in spoken words, he was five.  Most kids begin talking in conversation around their second birthday.  Besides the verbal concerns, he has some extreme sensory issues with ground surfaces.   Grass, dirt, gravel, or any other area you may walk on that isn't flat, becomes a chore for him.  And that sensation of air sweeping across your face and ears, we call wind, is a huge sensory issue for him.  His social cues are off as well.  He doesn't always get or understand why a kid is looking at him a certain way.  Is he smiling because he wants to play with me or because he hates me?  Because of these issues the usual activities most boys his age enjoy (games of tag, riding a bike, playing catch..), are all a battle for him.  So he prefers to play alone and indoors. 
Richard, my hyperactive, blond haired, blue eyed, seven year old, who talks a lot and rarely takes a breath in-between sentences, struggles, but not like his older brother.  Though his speech was delayed, we have been talking in great lengths of conversation since he was four.  The struggles you can see most in him are with social quirks and sensory issues.  Having no personal space, a one track mind, and wanting to touch and feel objects with his mouth, chewing, licking, and tasting them, like babies do when discovering a new toy.  Although Richard has no problem talking with others, he prefers to talk about trains.  This has been an obsession of his since infancy, when he saw his first train outside our apartment’s windows.  Richard’s social cues are a bit off as well.  He doesn't understand while playing with another child, why that child might have paused, signaling to Richard it’s his turn.  Likewise, Richard doesn't know how to stop or pause to let the other child know it is their turn.  He prefers to play next to someone instead of with them.
Both of my children went into the public school system at a very young age, three.  They spent two years in pre-k before starting Kindergarten.  It was because of their diagnoses of ASD that I placed them straight into the public school system, hoping for early intervention.  It has been proven by experts in the ASD field, that early intervention makes for the greatest leaps and bounds in treating ASD.  At first I was thrilled with the services they were receiving and breaks I was getting.  Though throughout the years, as I have met with Principals, teachers, therapists, and other school faculty members, the less satisfied I have become. 
We all meet, at least annually, to set up and discuss an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  An IEP is a legal document with a truly individualized plan for a student with a disability.  Things written in an IEP include accommodations made for the disabled student, such as therapies, disciplinary actions and teaching methods.   Basically an IEP is a plan parents and faculty set up, which in hopes will create the best results in a disabled child’s education.  Providing them with the necessary accommodations and resources needed to succeed.  It is through these meetings that I have discovered both federal and state changes that affect how the schools run.  Some resources that are needed and/or can help a child with ASD that were available at one point, no longer are, and other necessary resources never have been.  
Our economy has changed and with it has come budget cuts in our schools, leaving less money to pay for therapies these kids need.  Classrooms themselves have become larger and the staff and resources smaller.  Programs have changed and changed again.  Especially with the No Child Left Behind Act and now with the Common Core.  Though awareness of ASD needs has risen, accommodations and resources have not.
My experience with ASD, is not only with my own children.  I know and have met a large amount of others with the diagnoses, through the Special Olympics program and Autism help and awareness programs, like that of the New Mexico Autism Society.  I have learned that it is vital in an ASD pupil’s educational progression to have certain accommodations and resources available, which include:  Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, one-on-one learning and/or a personal aid or tutoring, vast ways of teaching a subject, alternative assignments, extra testing time, adjusted testing, social skill support and guidance, frequent breaks, allowance of objects in the classroom to help relieve stress and/or sensory issues.
ABA therapy, physical therapy and a personal aid or tutoring have never been available to my children through the schools.  This has been frustrating, as I believe these help tremendously in academic progression.  I have been able to get William physical therapy outside of public school, through Medicaid.  And I was able to get Richard ABA therapy and tutoring outside of public school, through a state program.  However Richard doesn't need physical therapy and I have been unsuccessful in getting William the same state program for ABA and tutoring, due to it being somewhat of a lottery program.  Though through the public schools they both have been able to receive speech therapy.  Therapist occasionally come into the classroom and work with them one-on-one and as a group.  The therapists also pull them out of their main stream classroom and take them to a different room for one-on-one therapy and group therapy.  Both have been pulled out of their classrooms and gone to a special education classroom for one-on-one and group help in reading as well.  William has received help in math through these special classrooms too.  As the years have rolled by though, the less one-on-one time they have received in these therapies.  And while they have been pulled out, they have missed other lessons and assignments, causing them to have to play catch-up in their regular classroom.  This has caused them to be slower in other areas.  For instance, at first William was only being pulled out for reading.  While pulled out he was missing math lessons in his mainstream class and he began to fall behind in math.  Causing the school to pull him out for help in math and reading.  It is because of this, pulling a child out of their mainstream classes for help, that I don’t believe the current system is working.  William also received an iPad through the schools to help support and teach him in an alternate way.  Though they never showed the teachers how to incorporate it in the classroom.  It became a toy for him as no one used it academically.  This I have seen happen to everyone I know who was issued an iPad for support.  Both William and Richard have had a few successful alternative assignments, with visual cues and sight words and a few different ways of teaching a subject.  It is hard for a mainstream teacher to teach in vastly different ways, when working with a group, they tend to stick to whatever method gave the best results overall and what method the No Child Left Behind Act, or now Common Core, is requiring them to teach.  William and Richard have had extra testing time, adjusted testing, social skill support and guidance and have received frequent breaks.  Richard in one class was even given a special seat with a soft cushion to sit on. This seat seemed to help him stay focused better.  He also received special sensory objects he could chew on, so he wouldn't be placing other classroom objects in his mouth. Like he was with markers, toys, his clothes and classmates.  With William’s Autism he has never needed special objects in the classroom.  And although the schools have had occupational therapy available, my children have never needed it.   
It is because of the lack of, and quality of some of these accommodations and resources, William has fallen through the public educational system cracks, slowing his progression down.  This year after our IEP meeting, it was apparent that he would not have any one-on-one time.  This I believe to be the most vital accommodation and resource in helping an ASD pupil succeed academically.  In each new grade William has entered, the student to teacher ratio has increased, making it harder to work one-on-one.  I knew this would cause his progression to slow down even more or possibly even stall it.  So at the beginning of this school year I pulled him out of the public school system.  I am able to provide William with one-and-one time and with more of the accommodations and resources I listed, than the school is able to now. 
What surprised me the most when I informed the school of my decision to pull him out was their immediate support.  They are very aware they cannot meet his needs and thought homeschooling would be a better option for him. 
Since pulling him out I have seen his progression rise.  I have met many other ASD parents who have also found that homeschooling is the better option for their ASD child/children.  As well I find it sad we can provide them with more at home, than the public school system can.  I am but one person, with limited resources, they have an entire faculty.  And it would make sense that they would have the access to resources I do not, with the funding they receive. 
But with the student to teacher ratio gap widening, I see that it is almost impossible to make accommodations to a student with special needs, even when an ASD child is placed in a special needs resource room, a special education class for those with disabilities only.  In these classes, unless your child’s special need is physically and visually apparent, like those with Down syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, the needs of the less noticeable are usually pushed aside to meet the needs of the more obvious ones.  Many special needs children that are apparently special needs demand a lot more daily task help.  Most ASD pupils do not need assistant with daily activities once in grade school.  They can use the bathroom alone, feed themselves, and do the other necessary day to day tasks needed to function on one’s own.  In these classrooms it is easy for a functioning ASD student to be overlooked.  Many non ASD disabled children cannot do their day to day tasks and daily work without help.  A teacher of these students will usually care for the non ASD child first, knowing that the ASD child will be fine on their own.  I have seen this and have seen many days go by, where the teacher never makes it to the ASD pupil.   ASD experts also advice against ASD students being placed strictly in a special needs classroom, saying they thrive more in a regular classroom.  ASD children are able to successfully co-mingle with non-special needs children and it is actually good for them to do so.  Mingling with other children without diagnoses sets examples for them as to what is and isn’t socially accepted.  It also helps them to grow, to play and communicate with others who know when to pause for a turn or know that when you’re smiling it means you’re happy.  This environment is teaching them.  ASD children have the ability as well to keep up with their other classmates academically.  So there is no need to be placed in a classroom where the academics standards are different and they will be pushed aside to meet the needs of a more severe special needs pupil.
I also see though how difficult it is to provide a student in a regular classroom with outside classroom therapies and not miss anything while outside the classroom.   No matter how much reassurance I have gotten that they won’t miss anything, they do.  Leaving the student more confused about assignments due and falling further behind in their academics.  Through homeschooling William, I have been able to assure he is not missing a lesson.  He is not being taken away from one lesson to work on another lesson, or past lesson, or therapy.  He receives physical therapy and speech therapy through Medicaid.  I can change the way I am teaching a lesson if it is not working for him.  I can adjust the way I test and the timing that he is tested.  I can allow him frequent breaks, give him social skill support and guidance.  Though I am unable to give him ABA therapy.  I am learning more and more on how to teach him, and am having more success than the school.  He is on par with all of his studies but reading now.  And I have high hopes he will be on par with that, within the next year.  He is still Autistic, still has the same quirks, though his education is progressing and at a faster pace than when in public school. 
Richard, my youngest, as he is not as severe on the spectrum as William, I have chosen to keep in the public school system for now.  He loves public school and is progressing with the other students in a regular classroom.  I have been able to get him outside school help, ABA therapy and tutoring, which I was unable to get for William.  I believe this is what has helped with Richard in his progression in the public schools. 
My purpose of writing this paper is to bring awareness, that the public school system does not have the accommodations or resources to truly meet their ASD pupils alone.  Schools need to hire aids for each classroom and teachers need to have the training to teach an ASD pupil.  They need to have all the resources I have mentioned above available, without taking away from their standard academics.  I believe ASD pupils unfortunately are not able to progress in the way that their non ASD peers are without these accommodations and resources.  From my experience the Public school system does not meet the needs for an ASD pupil to succeed in the system.  
(Written in February of 2014)