NEW ULM - The lack of tension was perhaps the least expected of my impressions of the Theo Wright Center for children with autism at Jefferson Elementary School.
The smiling, relaxed feel projected by lead teacher Sue Kimmel and the paraprofessionals helping her work with the children may reflect their level of comfort and confidence in the time-tested, research-based program.
During my hour-long visit, the children engaged in a variety of routines, both individually and as a group.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
A staff member at Jefferson Elementary School in New Ulm works with a student in the autism class.
They rotated among stations in the room: a work box, art, sensory, art, play, music, school and story areas.
The teachers worked on developing cognitive, sensory, fine and gross motor and social interaction skills...
The work done at the center is based on teaching methods and a curriculum specifically developed for children with autism (see sidebar).
How they do it
One research-based system applied as in the District 88 autism classroom is known by its initials, TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic Children and Children with Communication Handicaps).
Its primary educational goal is to increase the student's level of skill. In TEACCH, the child is provided with an environment designed to accommodate the characteristics of autistic children.
A TEACCH classroom makes use of many visual organizers or cues because visual processing is a strength of so many autistic children. Areas for special activities have clear boundaries. There are picture or picture-word schedules for individual children and for the class. Individual work systems are organized to maximize independent functioning and capitalize on the child's affinity for routines. Spontaneous functional communication is the language goal of TEACCH, and alternative modes of communication such as pictures, manual signs, and written words are used when speech is particularly difficult for the child. Such strategies neutralize or de-emphasize deficits common in children with autism and minimize behavioral problems.
While the TEACCH model uses individual instruction for some new skills, group instruction is a major format.
Another instructional approach used in the Theo Wright Center - proven effective for learners who need repeated trials and reinforcement of the learned behavior before it effectively enters into their repertoire - is Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT). An intervention method based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it is a highly structured method of teaching skills by breaking them down into smaller, teachable components. The teaching strategy involves breaking skills into the smallest steps; teaching each step of the skill intensively until mastered; providing lots of repetition; prompting the correct response and fading the prompts as soon as possible; and using positive reinforcement procedures.
The Theo Wright Center also uses elements of a system called Floortime, developed by psychologist Stanley Greenspan.
Floortime is intended to meet children where they are and build upon their strengths and abilities through creating a warm relationship and interacting.
The approach encourages following a child's lead, challenging a child to be creative and spontaneous and expanding the action and interaction to include all or most of a child's senses and motor skills as well as different emotions. As this is done, the child practices basic thinking skills: engagement, interaction, symbolic thinking and logical thinking.
(Adapted from articles in professional publications)
Among other things, for example, the children are guided by pictorial schedules and provided with a variety of visual cues.
The center currently serves eight children, ages 2 to kindergarten. The numbers have been relatively steady year to year, with five to eight children enrolled in the classroom.
They meet four days a week, for two sessions of two and a half hours each (one in the morning, one in the afternoon).
Between sessions, the children play outside, have lunch and visit the school motor room.
Children close to starting kindergarten join peers in kindergarten rooms for part of the time, getting accustomed to class routines. Pre-schoolers sometimes join classes in another pre-school.
The program was started 10 years ago, after teachers observed that children with autism made very little progress in classrooms also serving other special needs children.
The approaches used in special education were not sufficiently individualizing instruction for children with autism, especially visually, says Kimmel.
A group of District 88 teachers did extensive research into autism; it was also determined that the number of autistic children merits a separate classroom.
After the research phase, the school district purchased a skeleton curriculum from the Lakeville school district; it would serve as the basis for starting the local program.
Kimmel points to the key significance, to the success of any autism program, of designing a detailed curriculum: addressing each area of development, then tracking progress and making adjustments.
Once a week, she meets with a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and an autism consultant, to assess and adapt curriculum objectives for each child.
Autistic children are often seen engaging in repetitive motions - they are trying to organize their bodies, explains Kimmel.
When they first join the classroom, the children can be inward-thinking, unable to make sense of the world outside themselves, frightened; in time, they tend to open up, learn to trust their teachers, they learn and grow.
With the help of intense structure, the children learn to adjust to social expectations and are able to join peers.
Autistic children learn expected behaviors cognitively, or analytically, rather than through an intuitive grasp of emotion; so once they learn, the knowledge stays with them, observed Kimmel.
Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late March suggests that 1 in 88 American children has some form of autism spectrum disorder. The data suggests that the prevalence of autism is much higher than previously thought, up from a previous estimate of 1 in 110.
Boys are about five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, according to the CDC report. It is estimated that one in 54 boys have autism, while one in 252 girls do.
It is not known whether the increased incidence of autism is due to better counting, a change in identification criteria, something in the environment, or a mixture of factors. Scientists are also learning more about the role played by genetics.
In Kimmel's experience, the children in her room tend to be sensitive to chemicals, so she and her staff try to avoid chemical cleaners or cosmetics.
She also tries to offer whole-food, rather than processed, snacks in the room, although she respects parental preference (the majority of parents support and work with the program).
The program is seen as tremendously successful, in terms of preparing the children to function in school.
Few people know that the New Ulm program serves as model for districts in this and several other states in the Upper Midwest.
Kimmel and her staff host several visits each year from districts eager to learn from their experience.
Kimmel has presented in universities and other K-12 schools (but now favors "less speaking" and more real-life observation).
She dreams of (and is working toward) increasing school system- and community-wide collaboration on autism.
She says she'd like to see autism teachers in the district specifically planning together for transitioning children among age-level programs.
She dreams of a task force of teachers, parents, health professionals and others in the community collaborating on autism issues.