Happy New Year! Over the past 12 months, Craig Gibson and I have had several discussions about education – especially as it pertains to individuals with special needs – and how educators are prepared and trained to be successful in a diverse classroom setting. With Craig’s background (personal: growing up with a learning disability and now raising a child with a disability and professional: working as seasoned educator and evaluator) and mine (professional: working as a teacher/reading specialist and personal: raising a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder), we’ve found we’re both passionate about how important it is to set the stage appropriately, as early as possible, for children with learning differences. As we’ve discussed these beliefs and ideas, the idea for this “Feature Article” – a story about a new preschool teacher and a student with autism – was born…a piece we would work on together, to share some ideas, thoughts and beliefs about how even a teacher lacking the proper tools could learn, grow and make a positive difference in a child’s life. Craig and I decided it would be fun to kick off 2012 with our first feature article! Let us know what you think…
Including Children with Autism in Typical Educational Settings: A Story of Success!
By Craig Gibson Leigh and Attaway Wilcox
Mindy thought she knew what she was getting into when she entered the field of early childhood education. After all, two years of rigorous coursework thoroughly prepared her for this moment. She memorized every milestone in each developmental area, read dozens of books on early childhood development, and even passed a state certification exam in her chosen field of study. What else was there to know? Confident in her teaching abilities, she felt prepared.
By late-August, Mindy’s classroom in a private preschool looked like that of a seasoned teacher with years of classroom experience under her belt. Four classroom centers evenly divided what was once a large, empty room with bare, white walls. Name tags for each child were centered perfectly on each cubicle. Every object in the classroom had a label, and a word wall occupied the large bulletin board in the front of the classroom, below the clock. The literacy/book area in the back left-hand corner of the room was sectioned off with disco beads, and included plush beanbag chairs, pillows, a lava lamp, and dozens of brand-new picture books that would meet the broad interests and levels of each one of her students. A dramatic play area sat in the back right-hand corner of the room, complete with a kitchen set and a table for four. (Mindy remembered from her coursework the importance of setting up a dramatic play area in the opposite corner from the literacy area, as not to distract those who wanted a quiet area to read and look at books.)
On the first day of school the children nervously, but enthusiastically, trickled in one-by-one, and Mindy gave each child a warm welcome, as they crossed the threshold of a new and exciting school year. There were twenty children on her class roster and Mindy was excited to get to know each and every one of them. At 8:30 AM, there were nineteen children accounted for, with only one child not yet present…Not too bad for the first day of school, thought Mindy, and she gathered the children together on the floor to get started.
About five minutes into circle time activities, Alex, the last child on Mindy’s roster, arrived. With a huge smile on her face, Mindy jumped up from her chair, walked bristly over to Alex and gave him a warm, affectionate hug. I don’t want Alex to feel self-conscious about being late, thought Mindy. But unlike the nineteen children that arrived before him, Alex did not reciprocate Mindy’s greeting with a verbal or physical response, and even pulled away from Mindy when she tried to hug him and rub his back like she had with the other children. Even more perplexing to Mindy, Alex’s mannerisms were that not of a typical preschooler. He wouldn’t look at her. He flapped his hands. He walked on his tiptoes. And he appeared to have a profound fascination of the ceiling fan that spun rapidly on a warm, early September morning. As Mindy guided Alex to the circle time area, he appeared not to take notice of the nineteen pairs of eyes that were fixated on his every move. When Mindy made attempts to direct his attention to the other children, he simply lifted his head in the direction of the ceiling fan, staring at it with real fascination.
Alex’s mother, unembarrassed and unashamed of her son’s actions, softly whispered the words to Mindy; “Alex has autism.”
Mindy’s training did not prepare her for this news. Her coursework did not fully prepare her for this moment. What was she to say in response? Staring straight into the eyes of Alex’s mother, she unconfidently responded, “Oh, I see.” Never having worked with children on the autism spectrum before, Mindy was at a complete loss for words.
And she was scared.
In her coursework, Mindy was taught the monumental importance of meeting the needs of all abilities, and while she had read a little about children with “Autism Spectrum Disorders,” she had read that autism was rare. Mindy’s lack of classroom experience or experience with children with autism prevented her from taking immediate action. In one fell-swoop, Mindy went from feeling confident in her teaching abilities, to feeling unconfident and insecure. Mindy wondered, How will I get through the day? She managed to get through the day, but left the school that afternoon feeling like Alex was on the periphery.
That night, Mindy logged on to the computer and researched all she could about autism. She learned that autism is a neurological and biological condition that affects one’s ability to socialize and communicate with others, which can hinder one’s ability to interact with adults and peers, alike. It can also affect cognition. Mindy learned that the symptoms of autism vary in severity and are typically present by the age of three. In addition, Mindy learned that while social interaction, communication and cognition are three primary characteristics of autism, there are secondary characteristics as well. These can include repetitive and/or atypical behaviors, gaze aversion, lack of response to others, resistance to touch or physical affection, little or no interest in age appropriate toys, indifference to surroundings, toe walking, etc. Through Mindy’s research, she also learned that autism affects as many as 1 in 91 individuals, and is 4 times more prevalent in boys than in girls. She learned that there is no known cause of autism, but research suggests that genetics and environmental factors together likely play a role in the development of the disorder. Lastly, and probably most importantly, Mindy learned that while there is no known cure for autism, early detection and intervention are critical to the child’s future success; she even read that some children who have received intensive interventions, therapies and treatments have even recovered from autism!
With a little knowledge and understanding of autism under her belt, Mindy walked into her classroom the next day on a mission. That mission was to meet the communicative, social and academic needs of each and every child in her class, regardless of the severity of those needs. True to form, determined to make a real difference in the lives of each one of her students, Mindy made sure that Alex was no exception. After all, Mindy believed in inclusion, and held the belief that all children have the ability to reach their full potential when proper educational supports are in place.
Mindy knew that in order for Alex to reach his full potential, she could not do it alone. She called a meeting with Alex’s mother to learn more about his diagnosis, any behavioral, social, and/or communicative strategies already in place and what specific strategies she could implement within the context of the classroom to best meet Alex’s needs throughout his school day. Mindy’s openness and willingness to implement various proven strategies was a real comfort to Alex’s mother, and it was at that moment when Mindy realized the importance of open communication with the parents of her students; especially those with special needs. When Mindy learned that Alex had been receiving therapy through an early intervention program, she asked Alex’s mother to help her get in contact with his speech and occupational therapists for advice on how to best support Alex at school.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Mindy implemented many new strategies, with help from Alex’s mother and therapists. His speech and occupational therapists came to the school to model for Mindy how to appropriately execute the suggested strategies. She learned how to meet Alex’s needs in the areas of sensory integration and communication. This not only helped Alex focus and attend to structured activities (by providing tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular input), but also helped him communicate and socialize with his peers. Mindy implemented a picture schedule for Alex, which helped him transition seamlessly from one activity to the next. She utilized a picture exchange system which helped Alex communicate his wants and needs to adults and peers, alike.
Of equal importance was Mindy’s overall approach to working with Alex; not only was she open to trying new things that would help Alex succeed, but she taught his classmates the importance of accepting children of all abilities, regardless of their differences. Mindy taught her students that each one of us has areas where we’re strong and areas where we’re not so strong, and that some of us need a little extra attention to help us meet our full potential. It did not take long before Mindy’s students accepted Alex as a peer and worked to involve him in their daily activities.
It was Mindy’s goal to successfully educate and include each and every one of the twenty students in her class…
While Mindy is a fictional character, this story demonstrates how inclusion can work in our schools, as long as educators (both new and seasoned) are willing and open to working with and including children with a broad range of special needs. As illustrated in Mindy and Alex’s story, communication with parents and other professionals (i.e. therapists, behavioral consultants, etc.) is imperative, for the child to find success in typical/mainstream educational settings.
Craig Gibson, M.Ed., was diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of six, and spent the next twelve years in special education. He has since earned two degrees, has published on the local and national levels, and is the Editor of SensorySpot.com and is a Featured Blogger for AutismSpot.com. Leigh Attaway Wilcox is the Editor of internationally acclaimed AutismSpot.com, is raising a young son with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is the author of ALL BETTER: A Touch-and-Heal Book (Piggy Toes Press, 2007). Gibson and Wilcox enjoy collaborating on projects related to raising and educating children with special needs.