Autism through the lifespan #3: Education

    Much of childhood is spent in school. But for children with autism, school isn’t just school. Erika Beras behavioral health reporter at WDUQ in Pittsburgh, reports on special education.

    Much of childhood is spent in school. But for children with autism, school isn’t just school. Erika Beras behavioral health reporter at WDUQ in Pittsburgh, reports on special education.

    Part three of a nine-part series covering autism’s impact through the lifespan.


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    From the time they’re 5 to the time they’re 18, the typical child spends nearly 75 percent of a calendar year in school. For many children, it’s where they first interact with adults who aren’t their relatives and kids who aren’t their siblings. It’s where they learn the intricacies of social behaviors, the rigidness of rules and responsibility and of course, reading, writing and arithmetic.


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    For the most part, children go to schools that are closest to their homes. When a child has autism or other special education needs – the places and ways where they are educated –it’s a whole different story.


    Joanne Migyanka: Some people feel that it should be an all-inclusive environment, they should be with their peers who are typically developing in a consult model where a special education teacher comes in and works with the teachers and then others feel they should be in a self-contained classroom.

    That’s Joanne Migyanka, a special education professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. When she first graduated, she worked in special education classrooms. Some students were extremely aggressive yet non-verbal.

    Joanne Migyanka: They were almost inhuman in behavior and I thought what is going on and I got their paperwork and it said they have autism and I said, I have to know more about this.

    At the time students with autism were placed with those who had mental retardation. Since then, she’s worked with many autistic children and adults. She has also trained nearly a generation of special education teachers.

    Joanne Migyanka: For the longest time, autism was considered to be a very low incident disability. And so we would just barely touch on it in teacher ed programs. But we know that the rate of autism is increasing and teachers are increasingly becoming aware that they don’t have the necessary skills to teach children with autism.

    Teaching a child with autism is different. Because of the lack of communication skills, they tend to need a highly varied, very visual environment. The pay for the work depends on school districts, even within counties. More affluent districts tend to have more money and more services.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 110 children have an autism spectrum disorder.

    Penny Gardner: He is learning, hopefully, first of all, what the world is like that he is living in because he’s not living in, even though he has a disability, he is not living in a disabled world.

    Penny Gardner’s son Bryan is 17 and a junior. He’s been in inclusion classrooms all his life. His curriculum is set by his Individualized Education Program, or IEP. It’s like his guidebook; reset every few years depending on the progress he’s made.

    1977 federal legislation required school districts to provide free and appropriate education to all students. In return for federal funding, each state ensures students are educated in the least restrictive environment.

    Penny describes her son as somewhere in between high and low functioning.

    Next year at graduation, he’ll walk with his classmates– but then stay in school until he’s 21, completing his IEP goals. Mainstreaming him has been a big part of his development.

    Penny Gardner: For most parents with a child with a disability we look at inclusion as a way for our sons and daughters to really interact with their peers and be a part of, everything they’re doing whether its an extra-curricular or its in the classroom, being paired up as lab partners.

    The other students learn from him as well.

    Penny Gardner: I think because these students are included from kindergarten on that they have really learned to accept differences in other students as just part of life.

    Her problems haven’t been with students– they have been with adults. Two years ago, Bryan joined the marching band.

    Penny Gardner: It was a huge fight because we had a lot of resistance not only from the district, from the band director but from the parents.

    He plays the bells.

    Penny Gardner: I’m not going to sit here and say he is the best musician or the best marcher. The routines that they do, its 200 kids and they do a lot of moving, the routines are extremely complex, it’s a lot of footwork to remember, the playing is at times complex and he doesn’t always hit the right notes.

    But the band is open to all students. Although he’s been in inclusive classrooms, it was the first time that he felt included.

    When an autistic child is in a school with typical kids there can be bullies.

    Timothy Barnett: It was really hard on me. It like mentally brought me down and it was really hard.

    That’s Timothy Barnett. He’s 19. Last year, he graduated high school with honors.

    His mother Sherri Barnett says inclusive classrooms were the best option for him. He was academically challenged and learned social behaviors. At times, though, it was difficult.

    Sherri Barnett: There was one person who tripped him while he was walking down to the school door, messed up his face, broke his tooth,

    Sometimes, At times, the kids aren’t bullied. They just don’t fit in.

    Cherri Dulavitch has two sons with autism. Her oldest is 12.

    Matt Dulavitch: I can take a computer apart and like, put it back together. Most kids cant do that they just like YouTube and stuff. I actually do programs and stuff on them.

    Matt knows he is different.

    Matt Dulavitch: Well its sort of cause I’m like, what it is Mom, sort of like my autism – autistic-like spectrum it’s that I’m not too, I’m sort of like shy.

    Although, he has gone through extensive behavior and language therapy, its still apparent when you talk to him that he isn’t the same as other kids.

    Cherri Dulavitch: I do a surprise visit and it is just heartbreaking because I went into the cafeteria and there are like 20 tables filled with kids and there is another table completely empty with him and another kid just sitting and the other kid didn’t talk.

    Some kids are exclusively in self-contained autistic support classrooms.

    Patti McCloud vividly remembers when she first took her son Jordan, now 13, to school.

    Patti McCloud: I just absolutely cried, and they were like, what’s wrong and I couldn’t even explain, it was just the thought that he has to be in this separate school away from everybody else. It was sort of like a look into the future, is this how he’s gonna be, always has to be separated.

    For her son its been the best option. In his small classroom, with so many aides, he gets so much attention, its almost one on one schooling.

    That’s the sound of Alex Cass getting off the bus at his home in Plum Borough. He spends about three hours a day traveling to and from school. He goes to Pressley Ridge.

    His behavior problems – paired with him being non-verbal, means he too, will be in school as long as he legally can be. His father, Jim Cass.

    Jim Cass: He’s 12 years old now and he’s going to be going to school until he’s 21, then after that, basically all of the services cease to exist for any help through the government or agencies so after that its pretty much my wife and I on our own, its very daunting to have to think about that. We have to provide for our son for the rest of our lives – and the rest of his life.

    Susan Lautenbacher: We’re part of the continuum of services in special ed that comes from the federal law and then is then operationalized within the state law and then is implemented within the public school district.

    That’s Susan Lautenbacher, Director of the Autism and Disabilities Program at Pressley-Ridge.

    After autistic support classrooms in other schools, Will Wiebe says he likes Pressley Ridge because he feels his peers are actually his peers.

    Will Wiebe: All the kids in the other classes I went to were much lower functioning than me and I didn’t know how to interact with them properly.

    Will is 16. When a child turns 14, part of their IEP goals focus on transition – preparing them for life after school. Lucinda Wiebe, Will’s mother.

    Lucinda Wiebe: It’s difficult for him to see that he isn’t as employable as he would like to be. Its frustrating for him at 16 not to have a job.

    At the Spectrum Charter School in Monroeville the transition involves working at places that will likely hire them upon graduation.

    Norma Farrugia, Director of Teaching.

    Norma Farrugia: In the end of the 1990’s when charter school law was passed, a group of parents, professionals and advocates decided there was a big gap that was seen when students on the spectrum graduated and went into the work force or to college.

    Professionals are needed.

    Joanne Migyanka, from IUP, says there’s always been a demand for special education teachers but the demand now is increasing in myriad ways.

    Joanne Migyanka: The Pennsylvania Department of Education is asking that institutions of a higher education look at putting together some type of endorsement certificate to help teachers learn the skills necessary.

    Erika Beras reports on behavioral health issues for WDUQ in Pittsburg, PA.

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