I am an elementary/secondary school resource teacher in my 10th year of teaching. My education degree is in Middle Years - Grade 6 - 9, however my first full-time position in teaching was as a high school Lifeskills teacher with 21 students and 6 Assistants. When I first started researching what a "Lifeskills" program looked like - the main focus was on daily living skills, vocational skills and community activities. Somehow that did not sit right with me and from the start my class included academics and fitness as well as life and vocational skills (see Functional Skills Program)
In 2008 I completed my Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Special Education at UBC with a concentration in Autism and Developmental Disabilities and also passed my exam for my BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) designation. During the 2008/2009 school year I was the classroom/resource teacher at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver for their ARC (Autism Resource Centre) program. Churchill has the largest student population in Vancouver with 2200 students. The ARC program provides support for 12 students with high-functioning autism/Aspergers Syndrome working on their Dogwood Degree (the BC name for a Grade 12 graduation certificate) in regular classes as well as direct instruction in social skills, emotional regulation and organization.
The two greatest challenges were motivating students to accept help and instruction, and encouraging the five support workers (SSSWs) to provide sufficient classroom support. I saw progress with students by applying basic behavioural principles. By pairing myself with reinforcing activities, students were for the most part arrived willingly in the ARC room to work on their most difficult areas - social skills and organization. Routine is important to students with Aspergers. I involved peer tutors and students working on learning group skills. We used ideas and materials on Social Thinking from Michelle Garcia Winner. The senior group of ARC students and peer tutors (Grade 11) explored the world of social networking through sports and the internet through presentation, role modeling and videotaping. Three students were completing classes in the ARC classroom through the Vancouver Learning Network with the assistance of peer tutors. This has been very successful.
We collaborated with the PE department to bring in the Friend 2 Friend Learning Society to do their demystification presentations on what autism/AS is and easy ways to be a friend. We had almost 200 students and teachers involved. It was great!
Anxiety and depression are present to varying degrees in many teenagers with Asperger Syndrome/HFA. The demands of dealing with academics, friends, family and adolescence are immense. Flexibility in workload and school attendance, choice in presentation - regular classroom or distance education in the ARC room, and regular communication with parents (sometimes daily) has helped some students to cope. Although Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (see article) holds huge promise for teaching individuals how to deal with anxiety, most families do not have resources to pursue treatment. Small group or individual sessions at school may be a future possibility.
For the 2009/2010 school year I have taken a new classroom teaching position at Jarvis Traditional Elementary School in Delta with the District Elementary Social Learning Program. This school has just taken on the traditional model. I look forward to working with the younger children and will keep you posted on our progress.
Where is our education system headed?
Even though children with autism are diagnosed at ever earlier ages and may receive good early intervention, they will spend most of their childhood and adolescence in school. There is a huge disconnect between what is known about best practice for teaching children with autism and what happens day to day in the classroom. Clearly, not enough teachers receive or seek support from someone with sufficient specialized training. Out of thirty students in my university Seminar in Autism class, only 6 were teachers. I was the only teacher completing my BCBA as well. In fact, I believe there is only one other BCBA in BC who works directly for a school district. In general, today's Special Education teachers do not have the specialized knowledge and experience they need to provide a successful education for all students with autism. Having one course or two workshops in autism is not enough. Parents who have been through early intervention with their child know how to work with a team, expect data collection and progress and have no reason to think that this will stop when their child enters the public school system. Parents who are unhappy are experiencing a disconnect between what they expect from their child's education and what is occuring.
As a special education teacher and a consultant to parents with children with special needs I am fully aware of the huge mismatch between the potential abilities of students and their achievement due to lack of specialized teachers and programs, inadequate curriculum, lack of preparation for new teachers and required inservice for current teachers. More funding would help but a lack of policies requiring accountability for IEP goals and how government funding is spent, is a greater problem.
My Masters program has given me some answers to keep the education of children with autism on track. Successful outcomes can only be achieved by using best practices based on scientific evidence. These have been well documented. Specifically:
Skilled ABA practitioners delivering systematic instruction based on data collection (teachers and support staff)
Specialized teachers working closely with community professionals
Individualized academic curriculum, supports and services
Functional/positive behaviour supports
If the public school system puts these practices in place then they will be on the right track. We implemented all these during my time at Carson Graham with excellent results. I hope to help bring these practices to my new school.
Jan Palmer, MEd, BCBA
Teacher, Grades 4/5/6 SLC, Jarvis Traditional Elementary School
Board Certified Behavior Analyst