Education

Navigating the Educational Maze

In study after study, early intervention is found to be critical to a child’s long-term prospects. (That being said, I believe that it is never too late to reach the mind of a person with autism.) We began a home-based Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program recommended by Elizabeth’s doctors when she was diagnosed at age two and a half. ABA is a widely accepted teaching method which breaks down learning into small, discrete components.

In most states, if your child has been diagnosed with a learning disability, your local school district must provide for appropriate services beginning at the age of three. But what constitutes “appropriate” is not well defined. This is a good time to begin your relationship with the Child Study Team at your child’s school. Your child’s success depends on your ability to work with the educational team and advocate for appropriate services.

As your child’s education shifts to a classroom setting, new challenges arise. Our goal has always been to educate Elizabeth in a typical, mainstream classroom, rather than in special education classes, so that she can reach her fullest potential both socially and academically.

Our path with Elizabeth went from our home-based ABA program to a school district–based special education class when Elizabeth was five years old. Your Child Study Team will have a recommendation as to the best setting for your child, but always remember, you know your child best. If you believe that your child should be mainstreamed, go for it. Find a great teacher who is enthusiastic about working on new challenges. If your child needs the classroom support, the school will pay for a personal aide. Finding a committed aide and getting her properly trained are key to your child’s success. With daily communication logs, frequent emails, and monthly meetings, the teacher, aide, and parents work as a team to find solutions together.

Whether working with special or mainstream education, I have found that teachers are great partners. However, many teachers do not have much experience with autism. Before the start of the school year, identify who your child’s teachers will be and meet with them to discuss your child and answer their questions. Give these teachers books, internet sites, or other materials to help them understand the range of issues that our children struggle with, from sensory integration issues to communication methods. The books You’re Going to Love This Kid! Teaching Students with Autism in an Inclusive Classroom by Paula Kluth (for younger children) and Autism Life Skills by Chantal Sicile-Kira (for older children) are excellent gifts for teachers. At our monthly teacher team meetings, we speak openly about our challenges and we celebrate our victories.

If your child is diagnosed with autism, most school districts will assign an aide to assist your child one-on-one in a mainstream classroom. I have learned from experience that this aide plays a pivotal role in your child’s education. Because your child and the aide will work closely together throughout each day, I suggest you try to get involved in the selection process and help find someone who is caring, patient, and persistent. One way to retain an aide is to show your appreciation often and devote all the resources you can to help train her and compensate her for her extra efforts.

For nonverbal children with autism, finding a communication method that allows them to learn to write is crucial. We found the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) was the breakthrough that led to all of Elizabeth’s subsequent successes. You can buy the book Understanding Autism through Rapid Prompting Method by Soma Mukhopadhyay or visit her website (www.halo-soma.org) to sign up your child for a visit to their Austin, Texas, facility. Because of Soma’s success, it is difficult to see her personally, but she has other capable personnel at the facility. If your child is nonverbal and at least five years old, please try RPM. It has made all the difference to Elizabeth and hundreds of other children.