Sunday, January 7, 2007

Final Class Reflection

Final Course Reflection

This Counseling Interventions class as part of Antioch's Autism Certificate Program has encouraged me to reflect heavily on the significance of attending to the self-perception and emotional stability of these kids identified with Asperger’s Syndrome. In class Larry Welkowitz
(12/17/06) suggested that we tend to focus on the “topography” as opposed to the "function" of negative behaviors. He used the example of medicating a child that isn’t attending in school as opposed to understanding the function of the inattention and working with it. This made me think. We in the elementary schools, at least in the elementary schools I am associated with, have a tendency to attend to the external behaviors, social skills, and academic progress and overlook the emotional/self-perception piece of the picture. All the former mentioned are important components of our students’ educational programs, even critical, but without direct attention to the emotional well-being of the student we could be setting these kids up for disaster.

We spent some time discussing the co-morbidity issues with Asperger’s. There is some research indicating that co-morbidity is the rule rather than the exception (Gillberg & Billstedt, 2000). Ghaziuddin (2002) suggests that while these disorders often present as hyperactivity and disruptive behavior in younger children with Asperger’s, depression is more prevalent with the adolescent population (Barnhill & Myles, 2001). Knowing that the middle school years can be like navigating through a mine field for our kids, it occurs to me that we may be able to provide them with anti-mine toolbox through taking a more proactive stance.

Just this week we had a progress update meeting regarding a delightful fourth grade boy identified with high functioning autism that I case manage. It was at this meeting that I started thinking about things a little differently and making some connections.

This young man, I’ll call him DJ, presents as an intelligent, lively, humorous student. Not surprisingly, he struggles with stressors within the classroom and the unstructured social parts of his day (mostly recess). Some of the current issues that we are working on include helping him to recognize when he is escalating in the classroom and getting himself out before he has an outburst. Once he is able to process his concern he is quick to deescalate. Our hope is to minimize the “social penalizing” (Elsa Abele) effects of the outbursts by helping this student to understand himself and develop strategies to deal with the stresses in his life in more socially acceptable ways. He is making gains.

Not surprisingly DJ also has many struggles on the playground. His Theory of Mind and executive functioning deficits make for routine issues in free play. He, of course, would like to be the “lord of the playground” – in charge of all game decisions, rule making, and partner choices. Again, we consider these struggles as opportunities to help DJ understand more about how the “neurotypical” world works, and work through why particular issues present problems for him. We do our best to allow for pre-recess planning time, and post recess processing time – if needed. We use a combination of movement and Carol Gray’s Comic Strip Conversations (1995) to help deescalate and frame the necessary processing as misunderstandings occur. DJ also participates in a small social skills group where games are played and explicit instruction is provided in an effort to, as Steve Gutstein(2000) would say, "highlight" social dynamics.

In an attempt to be proactive with my case management I typically schedule monthly meetings to discuss the students identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Meeting regularly has so many advantages. First, it allows for strong team building – the foundation of the program. The parents come to understand of what utmost importance they are to the team and the direct service providers feel supported. It minimizes program misunderstandings and enables clear communication regarding focus and procedures which in turn maximizes progress. Meeting regularly with the family offers a more complete picture of what the ever-changing issues at home and school might be. Over time the ways in which the team might be able to help individual families becomes clear. Each family is the expert on their child, but some of the team members are likely to have more “autism” experience which can be of great benefit to the parents.

It was at this meeting that DJ’s mother happened to mention a few new concerns that sent up a red flag. She stated that DJ has just recently begun to say that he was dumb, and that the kids at school think he’s dumb. While DJ gets in recess dilemmas and has some outbursts in class when he gets overly stressed, there is no evidence to us teachers that he is not liked or thought of as dumb by his peers. As a matter of fact, it appears to the adults that he is liked very much. But, we also know that most bullying goes on when teachers are not looking or listening. And we know that what we teachers see and think is not nearly as important as what the student believes and how he perceives himself. At school DJ has not yet verbalized any of these negative thoughts. Without this monthly meeting this critical information would have passed us by.

Before this “Interventions to Counseling” class I probably would have listened with concern. I was already aware of how vulnerable these kids on the spectrum are to bullying (Welkowitz stated that about 90% of Asperger kids are bullied or teased), social isolation and depression especially a little later in life. We would have continued to work diligently in helping DJ understand the social dynamics of our culture and to develop strategies around his personal issues – which we will still do. We try to be explicit within our school community about what bullying is and have zero tolerance for it. This, too, will continue and our alertness peaked even more when it comes to looking out for DJ. But in addition, we are looking at counseling for this young man. To attempt to manage the external signs no longer seems enough. To take the same proactive stance with early intervention for emotional stability has to be at least as important as our proactive stance with early intervention for academics and social skills! If we provide counseling now before this student goes into the mine field of pre-teen and adolescence just maybe he will be better prepared to avoid the mine field explosions.

We, as a society, have got to be prepared to assist these kids and adults identified with ASD. Wouldn't it be a step forward in being able to provide more comprehensive programs to our students if our guidance counselors were provided with the tools they need to work with this population effectively? Is my school typical in that it’s usually the special education personnel and the classroom teachers that provide the services for the ASD students? Bringing our guidance counselor onto the team could hold so much potential for our students. It seems important to share information about this population and encourage more professional development around these issues with the guidance counselors so that they can provide meaningful direct services to these kids.


Barnhill, G.P., Myles, B.S. (2001). Attributional style and depression in adolescents with
Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 3, 175-182.

Ghaziuddin, M. (2002). Asperger Syndrome: Associated psychiatric and medical conditions.
Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities,
17, 138-144.

Gillberg, C., & Billstedt, E. (2000). Autism and Asperger syndrome: Coexistence with other
clinical disorders. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102, 321-330.

Gray, C. (1995). Social stories unlimited:Social stories and comic book conversations. Jenison,
MI: Jenison Public Schools.

Gutstein, S. (2000). Autism Aspergers: Solving The Relationship Puzzle. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Class Reflections 12/17/06

Very interesting class - yet again! We had the opportunity to listen to an adult identified with Asperger's speak about his school years as well as the issues he faces as an adult. As an elementary special education teacher I often work with students on the autism spectrum, but the students I work with are typically between the ages of 5 and 12. I had never been in the position to listen to an adult on the spectrum speak so openly about his recollections of his "growing up years" in a small group setting.

I must admit - at first I felt a bit leery. Here we were - a bunch of curious students desperately wanting information about what's it's like "to be Andy!" While this information held so much potential for us, it felt somewhat analogous to observing animals that we have only read about in a zoo. I was conscious of how this might feel from Andy's point of view. But...Andy was quick to put us all at ease with his quick sense of humor and easy going manner.

A couple of things that Andy spoke about really stood out for me. The first being how ostracizing having a 1:1 aide can be for a student. It seems to me that in an effort to "do right" sometimes we completely miss the mark and end up doing a disservice to our kids. This is not to say that it is never appropriate to assign a 1:1 aide. At times it is the needed bridge to allow a student to be educated in the least restricted environment. On the other hand at times assigning a 1:1 can be a ticket to stop any potential thinking that needs to happen. It is not unusual to witness a student in the classroom tuning the classroom teacher out completely as we have meticulously taught them that there is no need to listen to the whole group instructions - there is another adult right by their side ready to repeat on an individual basis everything that has been said! What we need to be better at is discerning when it would be the needed bridge and when it will be a limiting crutch - or even worse, stigmatizing and alienating. What better way is there to make a student stand out as different than by sticking an adult by their side - special, just for them!

Getting the decision right is only the first step. If the situation calls for a 1:1, there needs to be specific on-going training for the paraprofessional and teacher team to ensure the support is indeed "effective support." Paras need to be trained how to enable the student to be as independent as possible. This can be different for each student and is ever-changing. Because our paras want to do the best job they know how, it is not unusual for them to think they are doing a good job if they are with their charge every minute they are scheduled to be there. Often the old adage "less is more" is most benefiting to the child. However, paras cannot be expected to know how to do this without specific instruction and guidance.

The other issue that stood out for me was the consideration of how often our kids with Asperger's are penalized for social misunderstandings that are beyond their control. How often do we assume an outburst is caused from the immediate preceding set of events? How often does it happen that the "outburst" looks like something completely different than what it actually is? How much stress, teasing or misunderstandings has the student with Asperger's endured before an outburst occurs? Because they are the ones demonstrating the external signs, they are often the ones assigned the consequences. How much are we doing as educators to be holding the "button pushers" equally responsible for another's outbursts? We are never going to get it "all right", but it seems we can be more mindful of the social deficits involved with Asperger's to deal with misunderstandings more effectively.

I thank Andy for his candidness. His willingness to share his perspective so honestly and succinctly brought so much information to life for me. I can only surmise on the number of kids that have immediately benefited from his sharing of himself with us!

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Class Reflections

Recently I attended the first of two day-long classes titled, "Introductions to Counseling Interventions." One of our assignments is to reflect on the material covered in class. first reflection is I feel like I've been blasted into the tehno world!!! I'm blogging...(I think I am - I'm still not clear how anyone accesses all this and I don't know how to access any of my classmates' blogs, but I'm sure this will all become crystal clear in due time. Famous last words!)

In all seriousness it was some of the technology that was brought to class I found most intriguing. is very exciting to me. I work with one student in particular that I think might really benefit from being able to "see" his voice in comparison to someone else's. He tends to get very loud. As a matter of fact, it is probably the single most defining feature of what makes him "stand out" amongst his peers. I came right back and shared that information with our speech pathologist. She, too, was excited at the prospect.(Monkey email looks like fun, too! I loved hearing about these "new to me" sites on the web. There's just so much out there!)

I found the mentoring discussion fascinating. The idea of having a group of peer mentors at the college level to work with students struggling with the "hidden curriculum" is potentially awesome! It seems it is a win-win situation. Those that mentor certainly have as much to gain as those for whom they are mentoring! I wonder if it couldn't work at the high school level? I'm concerned that some of the developmental differences might be a problem, but I don't know. I definitely would like to explore the idea a bit more.

In listening to the description of the idea and program at Keene State it reminded me of a story my 18 year old son came home with last year. He was participating in the drama club and the piano player was a genius player. As genius with music as Jake was, the social world remained a complete mystery to him. My son, Dan, became quite interested in instruments over the last few years. I think it would be fair to say that Dan has a reputation for being a "social guy" (maybe a bit too social if you ask his teachers)! Apparently both of these boys saw an opportunity - they came up with the agreement that if Jake would teach Dan chords and how they work, Dan would teach Jake how to "be cool." I don't know how cool Jake is now, but I do know that Dan went on to college and passed the necessary tests to allow him to minor in music! I definitely thought it very cool that the two of these guys sought to benefit from each other's strengths on their own!

The mentoring program might also be likened to the idea of a "circle of friends" that is used in elementary school to enhance independence and increase socialization skills. This idea is based on the same notion of having peers help peers, but at this developmental level it is guided by the teacher.

I will returned to Antioch in a couple of weeks for the second part of this two part class. I'm looking forward to it and hoping to be blasted into the techno world a little more!

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Introduction - Education Chat

Hi All - So...I'm blogging! Who knew!!

I've been teaching since the 70's (with some years off to bring up my sons) and find myself getting more and more passionate about my work every year! This, I suppose, is a good thing!

My teaching started in the DC area in a "public training school." Supposedly all the students had to have an IQ of 55 or below to gain entry (the teachers were allowed to have somewhat higher scores). The whole idea, of course, is suspect. How do you get accurate IQ scores with kids with significant learning and communication issues? As each year progressed it was obvious that the psychologists missed the mark with a number of the kids. Take Ben for instance. Ben was a young teenager assigned to my class (14-18 year olds) my first year of teaching. Ben was deaf and unintelligible. The first day he arrived he was SCREAMING and fighting so vehemently that he tore his mother's shirt off. As a new teacher I was trying to conceal my trepidation, but I did believe that everyone could learn if a connection could be made and if I could get to know my students as individuals. This remains a cornerstone of my philosophy even today.

Ben had never learned to communicate in any way beyond grunts and gestures. His wild ways intimidated all of us - students and teachers alike. It was a short time before Ben calmed down and through home visits I eventually learned quite a bit about Ben. You see, before coming to our school Ben had been in a residential institution where he had been repeatedly burned with cigarettes. He must have been terrified to be dropped off at another "institution" without any way to communicate. It didn't take Ben long, I suppose, to realize he wasn't going to be hurt at our school. It was soon very apparent to me that there was an intelligent person trapped inside Ben. He was also very artisitic and had a wonderful sense of humor. In 1975 with the passage of IDEA, we wrote an IEP for Ben that included parts of his day at the community high school. Ben and I took a couple of trips over to the high school the spring before entering in the fall. The sheer excitement and joy that Ben exuded has stayed with me all these years. He was beyond being thrilled at the idea of going to the "regular" school.

I learned so much more from Ben than I imagine he ever learned from me. I learned that people might look scary from the outside, but there's a reason for it. If we are going to get anywhere we need to understand what the fear is and where it's coming from. (Isn't this true about both people and societies?) I learned that you can learn soooo much from looking into one's eyes. Ben's intelligence was all there - how could it ever have been a question? I also learned to question. Sometimes those with the credentials don't always know best - it's critical to pay attention - take the information that is available, but always remain open to new information. I was also interested to realize the importance of not assuming that we adults (or near adults!) know what's best for the students we teach. That while we had what seemed to be a good thing going at the "training school" the power of being with typical peers was astounding. I was completely taken by surprise at Ben's reaction to his new school. He couldn't wait to get there!

We have come a long way since those days. It has been both an exciting and trying time to be in this profession over the past few decades. I look forward, I hope, to squeezing out at least one more decade!!!

As I said, I continue to be passionate about figuring out how kids learn and making it work for them. This passion has brought me to the Antioch Autism Certificate Program (and this blogging assignment). So, about every third weekend I travel two and a half hours to sit in 16 hours of classes! I am loving every minute of it!! (Call me crazy - you wouldn't be the first!) Because I live in such a rural town (very northern NH) I feel an obligation to be sure we are doing the most for the kids we serve and their families. I've had many people ask me what I will be doing once this certificate program is complete. The truthful answer is that I really don't know. But what I do know is that I will feel confident about the services we are providing for our students on the spectrum and their families.